PROSPECT SUMMARY - JAELON DARDEN
North Texas wide receiver Jaelon Darden is a dynamic, explosive threat with the football in his hands. Darden’s stature is likely to limit him to more of a complementary role in an offense, but his vertical receiving skills and ability to generate yards after contact with his slipperiness is difficult to overlook. Darden would benefit from playing in a spread offense that spaces the field and minimizes the congestion he’ll have to run through at the NFL level—and teams would be wise to implement him most often on quick “now” screens, bubbles, out breaking patterns, and targets vertically down the field. Darden, as an added bonus, has two years of primary punt return duties on his resume (2017 and 2019) and can contribute on the special teams units as an added boost to his 53-man roster outlook. Darden is a natural in making the first arriving defender miss and teams who need depth and help creating explosive plays would be wise to look his way in the middle rounds of this year’s 2021 NFL Draft.
Ideal Role: Featured slot receiver and kick returner.
Scheme Fit: Spread offense.
Written by Kyle Crabbs
Games watched: Charlotte (2020), UTSA (2020), Louisiana Tech (2020), SMU (2020)
Best Game Studied: Charlotte (2020)
Worst Game Studied: SMU (2020)
Route Running: Darden isn’t the most diverse route-runner but he makes up for it with a plethora of ways to touch the football. He’s highly regarded for his worth ethic and has made big strides since transitioning to wide receiver after playing quarterback at the prep level. He sets up his deep patterns well with tempered speeds and acceleration and he does well on his out routes to avoid drifting up the field. Offers effective fakes when releasing out of motion across the set to freeze defenders on the threat of a false break.
Hands: His catch radius isn’t large and he doesn’t always catch the football cleanly away from his frame. He doesn’t have hard hands but he just won’t find a lot of success on balls outside the numbers on his frame unless he’s scooping it down low. Did not show a great deal of strength to squeeze the ball in contested situations. His tuck is quick and effective in the quick game, however.
Separation: He’s a terrific jitterbug athlete who will snap off routes or roll through breaks to carry speed effectively. He’ll run away from leverage well and add distance to create ample throwing windows against man-to-man coverage. He’s at his best on long-developing routes.
Release Package: This isn’t the most developed part of his game and he’s not really going to present as a receiver who will consistently defeat press coverage on the outside against long corners—he just doesn’t have the strength and any hands on his frame will reroute him and disrupt the timing. With that said, there’s plenty of lessons to be learned from North Texas’ schemed looks and stacked releases to grant him plenty of cushion. He’ll likely be a fixture in the slot as a result.
Run After Catch: Good luck. He’s a human joystick runner in short spaces and on several occasions I watched him break angles that should have had him dead to rights on bubbles and now throws. His short-area agility is wonderful and his initial acceleration really shines to overwhelm secondary defenders who look to trigger versus off coverage when he’s stacked or placed into a bunch set.
Ball Skills: Vertical tracking skills are where he shines—he’s made some big catches and adjustments down the field to run underneath the football. There’s not a lot of appeal in congested situations and he’s struggled to win positioning or box out defenders who try to wrangle for prime real estate. He doesn’t have the length or size to overcome not having separation as the ball arrives.
Football IQ: Darden was a high school quarterback whose athletic ability is now starting to bear fruit as a receiver. He’s a natural with the football in his hands and North Texas did well to get him easy touches early, but he’s going to have to continue to develop as a route-runner to defeat man coverage, especially at his size. His wherewithal of traffic in the middle of the field isn’t great and he wasn’t charged with delivering a lot of wins early on in the games I watched—he either used his explosiveness to win downfield or he has schemed free releases and quick touches of the football.
Versatility: Between the manufactured touches, the vertical receiving game, and the kick return duties, there’s plenty to like here for Darden and he should be able to blend those skills to find a pro role. He’s fully capable in the underneath game as a secondary read as well; if you’re able to work him into space he’s going to find separation. North Texas did well with return motion down near the end zone to generate free releases and easy targets in the red zone.
Competitive Toughness: Functional strength and power are never going to be significant contributions to his game. Darden is a finesse player through and through and you’d be foolish to ask him to expect results as a point blocker or at the catch point.
Big-Play Ability: Darden went from a gadget player to an explosive playmaker with vertical ability in 2020. Nearly averaging his yards per reception in 2020 from the previous season, Darden has proven lethal with manufactured touches. There’s some concern about the translation to the pro game at his stature, but he’ll be fine as a secondary weapon. He had 31 receiving touchdowns over his final two seasons with North Texas—he knows how to find the end zone.
Prospect Comparison: K.D. Cannon (2017 NFL Draft, UDFA)
TDN Consensus: 73.13/100
Kyle Crabbs: 71.00/100
Joe Marino: 74.50/100
Jordan Reid: 75.00/100
Drae Harris: 72.00/100
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