Jaelon Darden during his time at North Texas
Jaelon Darden during his time in North Texas.
Jaelon Darden, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 4th round selection.

The Pride of the University of North Texas

Jaelon Darden is already looking like the Meanest Green we’ve ever seen. After only a week in pads, the diminutive rookie receiver out of North Texas has quickly impressed onlookers at training camp.

GM Jason Licht sent the fanbase back to YouTube after trading up for Darden in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The University of North Texas isn’t exactly a hotbed for football talent, and most fans had never even seen Darden play. Cody Spencer, UNT’s last draft selection, was picked in the sixth round by the Raiders in 2004. He never started an NFL game in five seasons.

What Makes a Small-School Draft Gem

In the NFL Draft, size really does matter. First-round picks are supposed to check all of the boxes between desirable superior performance, measurables, and intangibles. If there are any first-round picks that don’t meet the NFL’s expectations in any of these three categories, they must make up for it by being superior in another category. That is how knucklehead pass-rushers and purely intangible-based QBs get drafted so highly.

Jaelon Darden checks the boxes in both performance and intangibles. Darden exits North Texas as its’ leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving TDs. After running a 4.44 40 yard dash and excelling in all the acceleration drills at his Pro Day, Darden erased any doubt that he has NFL athleticism. Then, the interview process revealed Darden to be a humble, well-spoken young man whose football inspiration is his late father. It only takes one listen to determine that Darden is not your stereotypical #1-wearing cocky wideout.

Where Jaelon Darden does not impress NFL Gm’s is in the size category. At only 5′ 8″ and 174 lbs, Darden is exactly as big as Cole Beasley. His career outlook may be similar to Beasley, at least in terms of deployment. PFF says Beasley ran 88.4% of his routes from the slot last season, and Darden’s physical limitations may limit him to the same inside role. While Beasley produced 938 yards in this role last season, Darden is unlikely to see the field that much in his debut season.

Where does Jaelon Darden Fit?

It’s no secret that Darden will have an uphill battle for playing time as a rookie. The highly touted trio of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown are obviously not leaving the field for anything but injury. Scotty Miller has already clearly earned the trust of Tom Brady on the deep ball, and that one lethal trick secures his roster spot. That leaves Darden in a battle with Tyler Johnson, Jaydon Mickens, and Justin Watson for what is likely the final WR roster spot.

Fortunately for Darden, he has an alternate path to the roster. He is electric with the ball in his hands, and he has experience as a punt and kickoff returner. This makes him an incredibly valuable fifth or sixth WR compared to those who aren’t playing special teams. Anyone who isn’t starting or playing special teams is wasting a roster spot.

Sadly for fans, this means we may only see Darden on fourth down to start his career. Darden’s best bet is to inspire coaches to install gadget plays or slot bubble screens with his shiftiness on returns. These plays would allow Darden to display his athleticism in space where he almost always makes the first defender miss.

In almost any other offseason these remarkably promising rookies, namely Joe Tryon and Jaeldon Darden, could earn a chance to prove their ability to play full-time during the offseason. Sadly for them, every starting player is returning to a championship roster. That means these young Bucs will have to patiently wait their turn.

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