Bucs wanted more from Jaelon Darden than just returning punts

Todd Bowles said Tampa Bay’s primary punt returner didn’t help his cause by playing little on offense, and the team has many other candidates for the job.
Published Dec. 7, 2022|Updated Dec. 10, 2022

TAMPA ― Jaelon Darden’s release Tuesday was a surprise move by the Bucs considering how late it came in the season and because the former North Texas star is among the top punt returners in the NFL this season.

But head coach Todd Bowles indicated Wednesday that Darden was taking up a roster spot while contributing almost nothing on offense.

“He didn’t do nothing wrong physically,” Bowles said. “It wasn’t because he did anything. It was just us moving forward. It was better. He hadn’t played offense for a while, and we had some returners, some guys that did a few more things.”

Darden was among the league leaders this season with a 10.6-yard punt-return average but had two just catches for 26 yards. In two seasons, he had only eight receptions for 69 yards and two rushes for 13.

Darden was claimed off waivers by the Browns, two weeks after the Bucs lost in Cleveland.

There are several candidates to replace Darden as the Bucs’ punt and/or kickoff returner Sunday against the 49ers. The list includes receiver Scotty Miller, running back Giovani Bernard and undrafted free agents Deven Thompkins and Kaylon Geiger.

“We’re auditioning guys now like we have been, whether it’s Gio, whether it’s Scotty, whether it’s somebody else we’ve been auditioning,” Bowles said. “We’ll make that decision at the end of the week.”

Miller said Darden’s release could give him another opportunity to make a play on special teams.

“I’ve been catching kicks every day during practice,” he said. “We don’t know who is going to be in. Maybe Gio, maybe me, maybe one of the rookies. We’ll see whatever Coach decides, but all of us are ready to step up and get another opportunity to make some plays, so any of us would be grateful just to be out there.”

Injury update

Tackle Tristan Wirfs (ankle), safety Mike Edwards (hamstring) and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. did not practice Wednesday. Defensive tackle Vita Vea (foot/shoulder) and cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting (quad) were limited. Tight end Cameron Brate (illness) had full participation.

With Winfield and Edwards out, the Bucs activated safety Logan Ryan from injured reserve. He wound up playing all 59 snaps on defense in Monday’s 17-16 win over the Saints.

“Obviously, he’s still got to get a little wind underneath him,” Bowles said. “He’s an extremely smart guy, great competitor, understands the game very well. He held up well physically.”

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