Jaelon Darden’s elite elusiveness and dominant production have him poised to be a late-round steal in the 2021 NFL draft.
Yeah, he played for North Texas against a Conference USA schedule. So what? Like every other smaller-school prospect, Jaelon Darden cannot control what his schedule looks like. All he can control is what he does against that lesser competition, and if he can help the New York Jets, Joe Douglas has already taken notice.
Sure, we need to take it into account whenever a player faces a weaker schedule, but that disclaimer does not mean those players should automatically be kicked down to the later rounds. It simply means that the bar is higher for them. If they want to stand out from a softer conference, they can’t just be good. They have to be a man amongst boys.
And for the Mean Green in 2020, that’s exactly what Darden was.
Snatching 74 passes for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns in only nine games, Darden was one of the most dominant players in college football throughout his senior season. Darden averaged 4.31 yards per route run, ranking fourth-best among qualified FBS wide receivers behind only D’Wayne Eskridge (4.94), DeVonta Smith (4.39), and Jaylen Waddle (4.38).
As a smaller wide receiver at 5-foot-9 and 174 pounds, it’s out of the slot where Darden did the majority of his damage. He ran 85.9% of his routes out of the slot and ranked second in the country with 935 yards out of the slot.
Darden’s elusiveness was the most eye-popping facet of his game. He led all wide receivers in the country with 23 missed tackles forced after the catch.
Another impressive aspect of Darden’s performance was the fact that he did consistent damage at all levels of the field. Darden ranked 11th in receiving yards on catches made from 0-9 yards downfield, 11th in yards on catches made from 10-19 yards downfield, and eighth in yards on catches made at least 20 yards downfield. The only other player to rank top-11 in all three categories was Alabama’s DeVonta Smith (No. 1 in all three).
Darden has elite footwork with the football in his hands. He is consistently able to stop on a dime and change directions in a flash, leaving defenders careening into oblivion. The Houston native said it himself on North Texas’ Beyond The Green: “Making someone miss is like waking up in the morning and brushing my teeth. I gotta do it every day.”
Motioning out of the backfield for a quick pass into the flat, Darden lures his defender into the sideline and slams on the brakes just before he goes out of bounds, maintaining his balance and planting himself mere inches away from the white paint of the sidelines. He jets upfield and dives for the touchdown, showing impressive burst to get upfield out of a standing position.
Darden is automatic on designed screens – and this is an area where he could help the Jets, as they currently lack a receiver who truly thrives in this area. Here, Darden again shows remarkable burst as he takes a split second to read the play but is still able to accelerate straight into top gear out of a stationary position. He zooms past the first defender, cuts off of his outside foot to jab back inside, and once more shows his burst as he fluidly comes out of the cut and fires toward the end zone.
Below are two more examples of Darden sending defenders into ankle surgery on screen plays. His change-of-direction talent is simply amazing.
On the play below, Darden shows off some breakaway speed as he is left uncovered on an out route and jukes one defender before sprinting down the sideline for six. He posted an unofficial 40-yard dash time of 4.46 at his pro day.
Darden also has some potential as a deep threat. He tied for fifth in the nation with 12 deep catches (20+ yards downfield) and tied for second with seven deep touchdown receptions.
Out of the slot, Darden toasts the corner on a long-developing out-and-up route. It’s not the prettiest route in the world, as Darden stumbles a bit as he attempts to get into his first break, but it’s something to work off of.
On a rare snap lined up outside, Darden uses a speed release to the outside against press coverage and runs straight by his defender, who elects not to attempt a jam and pays for it. With the ball being slightly overthrown, Darden pushes off the defender to propel himself forward, and he makes a tremendous diving catch.
Darden also offers some return-game potential. He returned 35 punts throughout his Mean Green career and recorded a solid average of 8.9 yards per return (2020 NFL average: 8.8), highlighted by this 81-yard score as a freshman.
In addition to his small frame, there are a few holes in Darden’s game that are among the primary reasons he will likely slip to the third day of the draft.
With seven drops against his 74 receptions, Darden had a drop rate of 9.5% in 2020, which is relatively pedestrian for a collegiate wide receiver. That placed him at the 47th percentile among qualified FBS wide receivers. His career drop is slightly better at 7.7%, but that still would have only ranked at the 55th percentile in 2020 and is also above the 2020 NFL average of 6.8%.
As you would expect from a 5-foot-9, 174-pounder, Darden cannot be relied upon to make contested catches. He failed to catch any of the nine targets thrown his way that were deemed “contested” by Pro Football Focus in 2020. For his career, Darden caught 7-of-31 contested passes (22.7%). The collegiate average typically hovers around 40% while the NFL average is usually around 45%.
While Darden made a high volume of deep catches, he wasn’t actually very efficient in that range since he was fed a humongous bundle of targets. Darden ranked fifth in deep catches (12) but second in deep targets (32), resulting in a deep catch rate of 37.5%. That’s not awful, as it placed at the 58th percentile among qualified FBS wide receivers, but it is lower than the typical rate for a prospect in this year’s draft class. Darden had five drops on deep passes in 2020.
Darden is far from a perfect player and is a small receiver coming out of a mid-major school after a senior-year breakout. He’s certainly a late-round prospect considering that he has all of those question marks hanging above his head.
With all of that being said, Darden’s dominant overall production, outstanding elusiveness with the football in his hands, and slick short-area quickness can all rival that of any other wide receiver in the class. If he finds a team that will amplify his strengths and hide his weaknesses, he could have a lot of general managers kicking themselves for passing on him.
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