Darden has a chance to change that in a couple of weeks when training camp opens on July 27. Brianna Dix of Buccaneers.com named Darden a sleeper, a player to emerge at camp this year.
“With Chris Godwin recovering from an ACL injury and with Russell Gage dealing with undisclosed soreness, opportunities have risen for Darden to insert himself on the field in a prominent role,” Dix wrote. “Although the Bucs typically covet larger receivers in the slot, Darden’s agility allows him to create separation when lining up outside on go routes. With his acceleration and contact balance, Darden opens another dimension in Tampa Bay’s receiving corps.”
The Bucs took the 5-foot-8 North Texas star in the fourth round of the 2021 draft for his speed, a 4.46 40-yard dash, and “shiftiness” as Dix noted. Darden mainly returned kicks last season with an average of 19.9 yards on kicks and 7.5 yards on punts. He only had six catches for 43 yards in the passing game.
Bucs head coach Todd Bowles saw progress by Darden during offseason team activities between April and June. Darden caught many passes from Brady during OTAs according to Greg McKenna of the Tampa Bay Times.
“He’s been working hard,” Bowles said following an OTA practice via Dix. “It’s not [just] today, I think he had a good offseason. His Phase II was outstanding — his OTAs were great and he’s picking up right where he left off. I think he’s got his head down, he’s working, he’s in-shape, he understands the offense, and he’s just letting his play speak for itself.”
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Coaching From Brady Sparks Darden
Darden showed his ability to adjust to coaching when Brady instructed him after missing a catch on an overthrown pass, McKenna wrote. The Bucs’ shortest receiver and player started catching numerous long passes in that practice and following day per McKenna.
“So when he did that, it kind of lit a fire in me,” Darden said via McKenna. “Like, ‘Oh, come on, get it together. Let’s get it rolling.’ I had to lock in and hone in on my craft like he asked me to do, and I just got the job done the rest of the day.”
Darden will need to lock in at training camp next, where his 2021 season went south. Dix noted that Darden looked great at OTAs in 2021, too, but it didn’t continue at camp, Dix wrote, followed by a disappointing rookie season.
Darden on the Bubble?
Darden’s training camp performance could also impact whether or not he makes the 53-man roster.
McKenna noted that “many believed Darden’s roster spot was in jeopardy” late last season. With that said, Dix noted, “the fourth and fifth receiver spots on the depth chart are wide-open behind Mike Evans, Godwin, and Gage” going into camp.
There’s just a lot of competition after the top three with experienced receivers in Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, and Cyril Grayson. Miller and Johnson made key plays during the Bucs Super Bowl run in 2020. Perriman and Grayson stepped up in place of injured players last season and made clutch touchdown grabs.
The Bucs also have rookies Deven Thompkins, Jerreth Sterns, Kaylon Geiger and Kameron Brown plus veteran free agent Vyncint Smith vying for spots on the roster.
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