With the 2021 NFL Draft fast approaching, a lot of the Green Bay Packers’ fanbase is clamoring for general manager Brian Gutekunst to take a wideout in the first round. But if the team wants to finally get over that NFC Championship Game hump, they should go in a different direction.
Yes, a wideout who can complement Davante Adams and serve as another weapon for 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers is a need. But with the departure of Ricky Wagner and All-Pro center Corey Linsley, plus All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari‘s ongoing recovery from a torn ACL late last season, the offensive line might be a bigger need. It goes without saying that keeping Rodgers upright and healthy is of the utmost importance.
Even finding a second corner to pair with Jaire Alexander could be considered a more pressing need. I’m not saying the Packers should avoid drafting a wideout in the first round, but they shouldn’t force the pick if the right one doesn’t fall to them. With Devin Funchess returning from a yearlong absence after opting out last year, the wide receiver corps for the green and gold already figures to be stronger next season. And with the depth of this year’s wideout class, there will be plenty of mid-round wideouts who could make an impact for the Packers.
North Texas wide receiver Jaelon Darden would be a great value pick in the fifth round. Not only could he become an impact receiver, but he can also return punts.
Darden racked up monstrous stats for the Mean Green this season: 74 receptions, 1,190 yards, and 19 touchdowns in just nine games. His 19 receiving scores were second only to eventual Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, who finished with 23 scores in 13 games. Darden also finished seventh in receptions per game with 8.2 and third in yards per game with 132.2.
Darden put up a 4.4 40-yard dash and a vertical jump of 35.6″ at his pro day.
You may be wondering to yourself: If Darden is so good, why is he projected to be a Day 3 pick? Other than his level of competition, the main thing holding Darden back is his physical stature.
At 5’7”, 174 lbs., Darden is one of the smallest wideouts in this class. He would most likely be pigeonholed into a role as a slot-only receiver. The concern with Darden is how he will be able to hold up in the NFL with the larger corners and defenders and his ability to get off of press coverage at the next level.
Darden is slippery, possessing incredible agility that allows him to get free in space and generate yards after contact. He has electrifying speed and can get open on vertical routes, stretching the field and speeding past the opposing defensive backs. His ability to start and stop on a dime, combined with his initial first twitch, makes him a very intriguing player.
Darden uses his speed to create constant separation against defensive backs in man coverage and find the soft spots in the zone to shake opposing defenders. He can also run the entire route tree, but he particularly excels in short area routes where he can work underneath and get space after the catch to maximize the play.
He also has experience as a punt returner, where he uses his speed and vision to follow his blocks and get past defenders. This would fill the Packers’ need for a viable return man who can flip the field. Remember when they tried to bring back Tavon Austin in a specialist role? It didn’t go so well in the playoffs. Maybe it’s time to go with a younger player.
Darden probably will never be a WR1 in the NFL, but that shouldn’t be the expectation for a Day 3 receiver. With both Funchess and Adams working on the outside, Darden could be a real playmaker working in the slot with his speed and acceleration.
Whether they use him to stretch the field or on quick routes to get yards after the catch, the Packers should look to add Darden to fill two needs on Day 3.