Football fans are understandably ready for another year of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady defying Father Time and embarking on another deep playoff run. Luckily for the seven-time Super Bowl champion, Jaelon Darden is here to help.
Who? We’re glad to explain.
Jaelon Darden could soon become Tom Brady’s new best friend
Earlier this year, the Buccaneers used the 129th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on Darden, the 2020 Conference USA MVP and a standout receiver from North Texas. The talented wideout will play most of the 2021 season at 22 years old after spending his college years dominating mid-major defenses.
Although the Buccaneers’ official website listed Darden as a third-string receiver on the Week 1 depth chart, don’t be surprised to see the team work him into the offense as a rotational receiver. Head coach Bruce Arians loves getting multiple receivers touches in hopes of keeping defenses on their toes and giving his players a break when possible.
Earlier this year, Darden told NBC Sports’ Peter King that Brady immediately took the rookie receiver under his wing.
“He said, ‘Hey Jaelon. Happy to have you on the team. I studied your film,’” Darden said. “What an honor. Then he took time to teach me how to win against coverages. Like, ‘When the corner plays you here, I’m gonna have the ball at this exact spot.’ Every day, I put my hard hat on and work and learn.”
Darden starred at quarterback growing up in Texas
Everyone has to start somewhere, right? Brady opened the 2000 season as a backup quarterback behind Drew Bledsoe on the New England Patriots. Buccaneers receiver Antonio Brown entered the league as a sixth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010 and primarily returned punts and kickoffs as a rookie.
That logic applies to Darden, too. While playing at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Houston, he earned all-district honors playing quarterback in 2015. He saw additional snaps at receiver as a high school senior in 2016 and left the quarterback position behind upon enrolling at North Texas.
Darden and ‘Mean’ Joe Greene are in rare company
Pittsburgh Steelers legend “Mean” Joe Greene probably comes to mind when one thinks of North Texas football. Remember, the football program is called the Mean Green.
In over 100 seasons, the program has only produced two consensus All-Americans: Darden and Greene, the dominant defensive lineman who, as of September 2021, is also the school’s only College Football Hall of Famer.
Darden finished as one of the most prolific receivers in Mean Green history
Across 48 games at North Texas, Darden hauled in 230 passes for 2,782 yards and 38 touchdowns. Nineteen of those scores came in nine games during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He also returned a punt for a touchdown as a freshman in 2017.
The 5-foot-9 receiver left UNT as the program’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. We’re fully aware that the easy knock against Darden will be that his success came while playing in Conference USA. However, he took advantage of playing at the mid-major level to earn an NFL opportunity, so who gets the last laugh?
Seventeen receivers went ahead of Darden in the 2021 NFL Draft
No one, not even the biased Mean Green fans, expected Darden to be a first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He would never go ahead of Alabama’s DeVonta Smith or Florida’s Kadarius Toney, both of whom went within the first 20 picks.
Seventeen receivers went ahead of Darden, who the Buccaneers selected in the middle of the fourth round. If Brady gets his way, the rookie receiver will have ample opportunity to prove himself in the coming months and years.