TAMPA, Fla. — Jaydon Mickens is talking about returning. And not just about the kickoffs and punts he is hired to field and bring back.
The conversation is about being cut four times by the Bucs, coming back to the practice squad, getting promoted to the active roster and returning kicks in the NFL season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.
Mickens, 27, was tapped over rookie Jaelon Darden because the Bucs believed the job might be too big for the 5-foot-8, 173-pound fourth-round pick from North Texas. Mickens returned three kickoffs for a 30.7 average and two punts for a 10.5 average in Thursday’s 31-29 win.
“I’m at the bottom of the roster,” Mickens said. “I’ve got to go a step up. I’ve got to make sure I look better than everybody when it’s up to me, when it’s in my hands.”
Mickens is not new to having to fight for a job. Undrafted out of Washington in 2016, he spent time with the Raiders, Jaguars and Panthers before joining the Bucs in 2019.
He made his biggest impact in Jacksonville, twice being named AFC Special Teams Player of Week for punt returns of 63 and 72 yards.
Despite some success with the Bucs last season, Mickens knew the team’s kick return unit ranked among the worst in the NFL heading into 2021.
“We had two meetings without the coaches, just to get everybody in line to become a return team,” Mickens said. “I get tweeted (at) … ‘This team does not have a return team, they don’t have a returner.’ We kind of took that personal and so we came out and hit them in the mouth, and we’ve got to keep doing it and keep being consistent.”
His career has tumbled end over end only to culminate in a Super Bowl 55 championship.
Mickens struggled to explain his longevity teetering on the end of so many rosters, but he’s proud of it.
“They wanted me to play gunner,” he said. “I didn’t know I was going to play gunner. I’m a gunner. They wanted me to play kickoff (coverage). I wasn’t supposed to be on kickoff but I wound up doing eight reps on kickoff. It’s like whatever it is we need to help the team, as knowledgeable as I am, with the heart I have and what I can really do between the lines, that’s what it takes for this football team to win.”
That includes mentoring a young player like Darden, who may take his job.
All during training camp, Darden got the first-team repetitions as the punt and kickoff return man. But coach Bruce Arians said he didn’t want Darden to “fail” on a stage as large as the one against the Cowboys.
Mickens believes Darden will one day get his chance to return kicks for the Bucs and it’s his job to prepare him.
“He’s a young guy but a pro,” Mickens said. “But it’s my job to give him everything I can possibly give him. It’s my job and everybody around him. It’s not the coaches’ job to tell him. They’ve got 100 different rookies they have to coach up. But it’s my job. If they’re going to put you out there, I’m a part of this team, I’m going to make sure you play great … because whoever is out there for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers I want to be successful.”
On Thursday, Mickens’ first punt return came in the second quarter and went for 24 yards but was brought back for a holding penalty on Andrew Adams.
After the Cowboys took a 16-13 lead on Greg Zuerlein’s 33-yard field goal, Mickens returned the ensuing kickoff 41 yards to the Tampa Bay 43. Two plays later, Tom Brady connected with Antonio Brown for a 47-yard touchdown.
Mickens credited the 10 other players on the kick and punt return teams for his success and feels like the Bucs are close to breaking one for a touchdown.
“I’m saying the next one,” Mickens said. “And if we don’t, the next one. We’re very close. Seeing that and allowing those guys to feel that success with me? They want it more than me. They really want it.”
When you are a card-carrying member of the NFL’s almost forgotten fraternity, you tend to stick together. The league is full of receiver/returner/special teams players. Last year, Mickens had seven receptions for 58 yards, five of them in a win over the Giants.
He earned a Super Bowl ring and that’s why he wanted to return to the Bucs in 2021.
“Heck yeah, I want that again,” he said. “That feeling, that’s what you do it for. Everywhere I go, it’s Super Bowl champion Jaydon Mickens. Not just Jaydon Mickens the football player.”