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After ‘Hard Knocks’ Moment, Raiders’ Darren Waller Having a Career Season

The tight end was handed two significant suspensions for substance violation early in his career, but after refocusing and gaining popularity on Oakland’s season of ‘Hard Knocks,’ Waller is putting up eye-popping numbers.
Darren Waller

This season, Darren Waller has 44 catches for 485 yards and two touchdowns for the Raiders.

Remember Darren Waller, the popular feel-good story out of this year’s season of Hard Knocks?

If you aren’t a Raiders fan, or if you weren’t savvy enough to draft Waller for your fantasy team (don’t worry, I did), then here’s a quick refresher on the rare player featured on the HBO show who has actually panned out on the field.

On Hard Knocks, Waller opened up about how he had been sober for two years, after facing a wake-up call to his drug addiction when he was suspended twice by the NFL for violating the substance abuse policy—first for the first four games of the 2016 season and then for the entire ’17 NFL season. 

The 6' 6" tight end was drafted in the sixth round out of Georgia Tech by the Ravens in 2015. He had tantalizing speed and size, but struggled with substance abuse off the field. Waller told the Hard Knocks cameras that during the 2016 training camp with the Ravens, “I was just like a vegetable—I was getting high like literally every day.”

He said he used substances like opiates, Xanax and cocaine and was, “plotting to sabotage my way out of the league so I didn’t look like a quitter.”

A few months after Waller was handed his year-long ban, he had a scary experience after taking pills, and decided to finally quit drugs once and for all. According to The Athletic, Waller spent a month at a rehab center in Maine, undergoing therapy and attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He worked at a grocery store during his time away from the league. Waller applied for reinstatement after his suspension ended in 2018, and the Ravens kept him on their practice squad until the Raiders came calling and signed him off the Baltimore practice squad in November 2018.

During OTAs last spring, Gruden raved about Waller. “I think he’s going to be one of the best kept secrets in the league,” he said during OTAs this spring. Gruden often speaks in hyperbole, making it hard to gauge the weight of his statements, but this one has proved true.

Waller is currently second in the league among tight ends in receptions (44) and receiving yards (485), and he’s averaging 11 yards per catch. Before this season, Waller had tallied only 178 yards and 18 catches in his career.

Waller has become such an important part of Oakland’s offense, that last week, the team signed him to a three-year contract extension that will pay him around $9 million per year.

“I think it shows I can contribute to the team and can be somebody who is reliable and can be counted on,” Waller told reporters. “That wasn’t the case before, so I take pride in that.”

In his first game after signing his extension, Waller had seven catches for two touchdowns in Oakland’s game at Green Bay. Waller’s 44 catches surpassed Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown and fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Rice for the most receptions in the first six games of a season in franchise history. The two star receivers both had 40 catches through six games as Raiders—Brown in 1997 and Rice in 2002.

Waller is the team’s leading receiver right now and this week, Gruden called the tight end group, “the lifeblood of our offense.” Waller is second in the league among all players in receptions per game, tied with Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (7.3) and just behind Saints receiver Michael Thomas (8.9).

The Raiders have had a rotating cast at wide receiver this season, so Waller will likely continue to command a significant role in Oakland’s offense, and it seems he’s here to stay.

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“It’s hard for me in my mind to think what I’ll be like in 2024,” Waller said. “But I just try to let the days stack and it’ll handle itself... It’s just still surreal to me. I remember last year sitting in that same room signing my contract coming from Baltimore. I just didn’t want to mess this up, so now to have something in place is incredible.”

Waller and the Raiders visit the Texans on Sunday.

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Darren Waller’s great-grandfather is Fats Waller, who was an extremely popular jazz pianist, organist, composer, violinist, singer and comedic entertainer. So popular in fact, that Chicago mob boss Al Capone once had his guys kidnap Fats as he was leaving a performance so that the jazz musician could perform for Capone’s 27th birthday party. Fats was the surprise guest, and Capone paid him a lot of money. Start your Thursday off with one of Fats’s best-known compositions, Ain’t Misbehavin’ featuring legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Darren pays tribute to his great-grandfather with a tattoo of his face on his left calf.

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