The Cleveland Browns have a new wide receiver on their roster after general manager Andrew Berry claimed Jaelon Darden, who was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the return of their starting quarterback, and with new elements added to their offense against the Houston Texans last week, the question has to be asked: how can Darden fit into head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense?
I seek to find an answer to that question here.
With his playing experience at the NFL level being so minimal, I went back and watched three games from Darden’s last season at the University of North Texas in 2020 and pulled clips from that time as well.
All clips pulled from limited NFL action comes courtesy of Jake Burns of The OBR.
Looking at Jaelon Darden through the numbers lense
Browns Film Room Jaelon Darden. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports
Coming out of North Texas just over a year ago, Darden was an analytical darling given the mixture of his testing numbers at the combine, his production for the Mean Green, and how he graded out by the bigger metrics that get absorbed by the masses as he received a grade of 89.8 according to PFF.
Looking at that production in college, while he only has 69 total receiving yards in the NFL through a little over a year and a half, Darden scored a massive 19 touchdowns in 2020. Sure, his 5-foot-8 and 174-pound frame is going to be a necessary detail to discuss, but regardless, Darden managed to rack up nearly 1,200 yards and 19 touchdowns on 74 catches.
Then he went to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and put together a good showing despite measuring in at the bottom first percentile. Putting his agility on full display, Darden ran a blazing 6.67 three-cone drill, which falls in the 95th percentile historically; adding onto that, Darden added a short shuttle that fell in the 87th percentile as well. The icing on the cake is the 4.4 40-yard dash he burned on the track as well.
If the Browns were in a position to draft him in the 2021 NFL Draft, Darden would have been in Cleveland as he checks every analytical metric they look for. They now get him just over a year later.
Speed and creativity are staples of Darden's game
Going back to Darden’s 2020 tape with the Mean Green, North Texas was not shy about getting the ball into their best playmaker’s hands. During his last season at the college level, Darden racked up nearly half of his yards after the catch at North Texas; he averaged nearly eight yards after the catch per reception.
Again, Darden’s reps are limited at the NFL level, but he does have a handful of clips that fit the bill from both the regular season and preseason with the Bucs. Courtesy of Jake Burns, the Bucs were not shy of getting the football into Darden’s hands and letting him work in space.
He’s not the most physical player given his small stature, but Darden can give defensive backs fits in the open field as they try to break down and get hands on him. Darden is a slippery, slippery runner after the catch.
The route running of Darden creates pockets of separation
While the route tree of Darden coming out of North Texas was thin, he did show a great deal of suddenness at the top of routes to put defensive backs in conflict. Coming down to the smaller details of the game, Darden’s stems are efficient and serve a purpose to leverage the man across from him away from where he wants to end up.
This creates pockets of separation when Darden can then slip behind the opening hips of the defensive back (his blindspot) and turn on the jets. A fluid athlete, Darden gets in and out of breaks at a rapid pace, presenting a target for his quarterback.
Darden has even managed to expand his route tree at the NFL level despite the lack of opportunities provided in Tampa Bay’s vertical offense. Running predominantly hitches, verticals, slants, and posts in college, Darden has started attacking the intermediate level of the field at the NFL level as well.
Darden wins not only laterally, but vertically as well
If the Browns find a player who can stretch centerfielders down the seam in Darden, it will take a great deal of attention off of other pass catchers Amari Cooper, Donovan Peoples-Jones, and David Njoku. The long speed of Darden is eye-popping and evident on tape as he can fly by defensive backs down the field.
Once Darden beats his man, he shows the refinement to work back overtop of defensive backs and stack them so he does not give them a target to disrupt. Darden tracks the football at a high level, frequently making plays deep down the field for the Mean Green in college.
Vertically and horizontally, Darden has the chance to seize a role as neither Anthony Schwartz nor Demetric Felton has been inspiring in similar looks for the Browns through a year and a half.
The negatives of Darden's game
Darden’s frame is a big talking point, and it deserves to be. When you are shorter than 5-foot-8 and smaller than 175 pounds, your margin for error is razor-thin. And this shows up on Darden’s tape as well.
Given his short arms, Darden’s catch radius does not reach wide and far. This forces his quarterback to have to put the ball right on him as he does not have the arms or radius to make too significant of an adjustment on the football. There are some throws down the field that would be caught by 90 percent of wide receivers, but balls that land just out of the reach of Darden’s arms.
This also limits Darden’s ability to work through contact. The small wide receiver will not be able to handle press-man coverage at the NFL level, pigeonholing him into the slot, Z, and stack looks in Cleveland. Darden is frequently knocked off his path by the hands of defensive backs and struggles to shake free when defenders get into his hip pocket.
How the Browns incorporate Jaelon Darden into their offense
Browns Film Room Jaelon Darden. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
In the first start of Deshaun Watson’s career with the Cleveland Browns, they dove head-first into the RPO game against the Texans. This is going to be a staple moving forward as the Browns have a quarterback who knows how to use his legs for the first time in their existence outside of the blips of Seneca Wallace and Johnny Manziel.
Darden has a world of experience in RPO packages during his time at North Texas. His route tree in college aligns with what the Browns will ask him to do, and they have installed a large quantity of jet motion as well. After being a consistent healthy scratch all season, wide receiver/running back hybrid player Demetric Felton played a massive 39 snaps against the Texans.
And on the majority of those 39 snaps, Felton was sent in motion to give pre-snap looks to Watson, but also to simulate jet motion action offensively as well. Given the natural speed and agility of Darden compared to Felton, the Browns may finally have a guy they have been lacking over the past three seasons.
They tried with Jojo Natson, Jakeem Grant got hurt in the preseason, and Anthony Schwartz has not proven to be trustworthy enough to put on the field. The Browns have never had a wide receiver who was a threat to extend the run game horizontally and threaten in space in the screen game.
Not just this, but the Browns now have a guy whose film shows he can stretch the seam vertically as well. Darden is not going to beat NFL cornerbacks outside the numbers and against press-man coverage, but eyes will have to be peeled to Darden from safeties and nickels when he is lined up in the slot.
What will be interesting, however, is to see if the Browns pull Donovan Peoples-Jones and Jerome Ford off of their respective return duties after the addition of Darden. Both players are currently productive where they are at, but Darden also has a proven track record as a return man.
Darden has the skillset to not only carve out a role but to carve out consistent snaps week in and week out for the Browns.