Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Jaelon Darden didn’t jump off the screen as a rookie, but the second-year player from North Texas could break out in 2022.
That’s what a high-ranking Bucs front office official told Heavy’s Matt Lombardo on July 21.
“He really dove into the playbook this offseason and is playing really fast,” the Bucs official said per Lombardo.
Lombardo reported that “multiple members of the Buccaneers’ coaching staff and front office” described Darden as “among the standouts during 2022 OTAs and minicamp”.
“What I love about his game is he has instant speed and quickness,” a rival executive told Heavy’s Lombardo. “He’s the type of player who could make a rapid improvement in Year 2.”
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady liked the fourth-round pick with Darden last year but it didn’t translate to big production amid a decimated receiver room. Darden mustered six catches for 43 yards plus 19.9 yards per kick returns and 7.5 yards per punt returns in nine games last season. Darden notably dealt with injuries, too, such as “a concussion, a broken fibula, and a high ankle sprain”, Lombardo reported.
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Opportunity awaits Darden as the Bucs have two key injuries at receiver going into training camp. Chris Godwin continues to recover from an ACL tear though ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that he could be ready by Week 1. Russell Gage didn’t practice during minicamp and OTAs due to an undisclosed injury.
Gene Deckerhoff calls Jaelon Darden’s huge punt return, and the Bucs’ opening drive capped by a Leonard Fournette rushing touchdown #GoBucs pic.twitter.com/5mR1wKIlpZ
— Bucs Rays Bolts (@BucsRaysBoltsYT) October 24, 2021
“Don’t be surprised if Darden pushes for the Buccaneers’ fourth wide receiver job,” Lombardo said in his video. “At least that’s the feeling based on optimism surrounding him inside the building in Tampa Bay for Brady.”
“If Darden, who showed flashes of being a dynamic playmaker at North Texas takes that next step in his development this season, the Buccaneers offense must might level up in 2022,” Lombardo added. “Especially when Chris Godwin back on the field later on this fall.”
It also behooves Darden to shoot for the fourth receiver spot with a deep and competitive position group going into training camp. The Bucs added four undrafted free agent rookies during the spring — Deven Thompkins, Jerreth Sterns, Kameron Brown, and Kaylon Geiger. Veteran free agent Vyncint Smith also signed.
That’s all in addition to veteran receivers who produced in various moments last season or during the Super Bowl run in 2020. All of those receivers, except for one, had more catches and yards than Darden in 2021.
Breshad Perriman caught arguably the most electrifying game-winning touchdown of the 2021 season, and the Bucs re-signed him in free agency. Cyril Grayson, who made a couple of highlight-reel touchdown grabs, emerged as a speedy deep threat in 2021.
Scotty Miller caught multiple deep ball touchdowns from Brady in 2020 but dealt with injury in 2021. Tyler Johnson made a clutch catch in the 2021 NFC Championship game at Green Bay but regressed in his second season.