The New England Patriots have, let’s say struggled, at drafting the wide receiver position. There is perhaps no example that illustrates those struggles than the one below:
If you average out the career AV of every WR Bill Belichick has ever drafted you get 12. Here are a couple of examples of wide receivers with an AV over 12 in 2020. pic.twitter.com/qlypNfoqGz— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) January 25, 2021
If you read that correctly then you would see that both DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown, who the Patriots passed over to draft N’Keal Harry, had better seasons in 2020 than the average career of a wide receiver drafted under Belichick. That is NOT good.
Stats like these often come up when you mention the Patriots current options to upgrade their receiver room. Option No. 1 would be spending their first-round pick on a receiver, something that has not worked for them. Option No. 2 would be spending some of the $60M+ in cap space they have on a proven commodity at the position.
If they do go down one of those routes then they will upgrade the room, but they would likely have to make another move to really transform their receiving corps into a viable one for the next quarterback, whoever that may be. That leads us to option No. 3, taking another mid-round, high-ceiling player to fit a role that Josh McDaniels has been looking for ever since he arrived back in New England from St. Louis. An offensive weapon, that is where Jaelon Darden comes in.
Name: Jaelon Darden
Position: Wide receiver
School: North Texas (Senior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 9 games; 74 catches, 1,190 yards, 19 touchdowns.
Size: 5’9”, 170 lbs
Expected round: Day 3 (4th/5th)
#Patriots Draft Target Thread: WR #1 Jaelon Darden (North Texas) 5’9” 175lbs.— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 3, 2021
• Extremely shifty playmaker with major YAC potential.
• Good route runner with a variety of releases.
• Potential to be the #weapon that Josh McDaniels has been looking for. pic.twitter.com/tfN0zULvyk
Strengths: I don’t know if people will like this but Jaelon Darden’s biggest strength is being a straight up weapon. The man did it all in his time at North Texas: he lined up in the slot, split out wide, and even was used in the backfield. At his worst, Darden is an extremely talented gadget guy who can make a big play here and there.
Darden plays mostly in the slot, at his best he’s working towards the sideline. Outs and corner routes are where his bread is buttered. Get him the ball on a quick out and let him eat. pic.twitter.com/7kA3n20JQ6— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 3, 2021
At his best, Darden can be a dynamic route runner who creates separation from anywhere. His suddenness lends itself well to his route running as he’s able to break off defensive backs at the tops of his routes. When in the slot, he was phenomenal at working towards the sideline, commanding attention and helping others get open. The potential as a receiver is off the charts.
Darden has super reliable hands, not something you’ll always find in a “gadget guy”. The potential is there to be a really good wide receiver. pic.twitter.com/6MAocWi8ZA— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 3, 2021
I have a hard time finding a scenario where Jaelon Darden isn’t a successful pro. He has ELITE quickness and was so versatile at North Texas that he shouldn’t have a problem adapting to any role asked of him at the next level.
Weaknesses: Though the tools are there, the frame is not. Jaelon Darden will immediately become one of the smallest players in the NFL upon his arrival. Players can always add weight, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown gained 23 pounds this past offseason, but at first glance it doesn’t look as if Darden has much room for weight gain.
Something that comes with a lack of size is a lack of play strength. Darden won’t do much to provide physicality on the offensive side of the ball, he’s all finesse all the time. Kadarius Toney is a player in this draft who provides the same amount of shiftiness as Darden, but he will also run through a defender. Darden won’t. Having a physical playing style and a filled out frame is the difference between being a potential first rounder and a Day Three guy.
What would be his role? At the very least, Darden could fill Cordarrelle Patterson’s weapon role in the Patriots’ offense that made them so dynamic in 2018. He is absolutely not the same player — Patterson has about five inches and 70 pounds on Darden — but as it was with Patterson, the Patriots would just need to get Darden the ball and get out of the way. His ability to make the first, second, and third man miss is unbelievable and made him one of the best yards-after-the-catch producers in all of college football.
He could be the guy to run all of those end arounds and bubble screens Josh McDaniels loves calling so much.
Unfortunately we can’t see the top of this route but I’m going to go ahead and call it a positive that the defender is getting off the ground while Darden strolls into the end zone. pic.twitter.com/CruW9qNuS6— Keagan (@KeaganStiefel) February 3, 2021
Does he have positional versatility? He certainly did at North Texas by playing in the slot, split out wide, and in the backfield. There’s a chance he’s pigeonholed into the slot because of his size, but I believe he’d fit best as a Z-receiver. Even though that means he would be playing against bigger/more physical cornerbacks, that would allow him to work with some more space. He is capable at either spot, it just depends on what his future NFL team has in mind.
Who is his competition? There are few people on the planet that can do what Jaelon Darden does. There definitely isn’t anyone in New England’s receiving room that can. If I had to pick one person I would go with free-agent-to-be Damiere Byrd. Both guys have great speed and work well in space, but Darden is much more sudden and dynamic than Byrd. He would also be much cheaper.
Why the Patriots? The Patriots currently have no idea who their quarterback will be for the 2020 season. With that in mind it should be important that they find themselves a gadget guy, someone who just needs to get the ball in his hands and make something happen.
In addition to that, upside is the name of the game with late-round receivers. Jaelon Darden has it in spades. He has the chance to completely transform a wide receiver room by bringing in skills that it simply does not have.
Why not the Patriots? It’s the classic argument we have seen since April 2019 and will continue to see until they hit again. The Patriots just cannot seem to find a way to select a good wide receiver in the draft. Why continue to swing and miss.
Verdict: If you enjoy living in fear then this pick wouldn’t be for you. That’s just not how Bill Belichick rolls. Jaelon Darden provides a low-risk/high-reward option for the Patriots at a position that they need and have struggled to find. Pairing him with a free agent signing or high draft pick would give the Patriots an opportunity to transform their entire receiving corps in one offseason. If he stinks, it’s a losing lottery ticket. There’s no reason not to at least buy the ticket, though.