Raiders Darren Waller Tabbed as NFL's Fifth-Best Tight End

Tom LaMarre

Two years ago, Darren Waller had straightened out his life but seemed to have hit a dead-end in his career, stuck behind tight end Jared Cook with the Oakland Raiders.

However, after a career year, Cook left the Raiders and signed a free-agent contract with the New Orleans Saints, leaving the starting job to Waller—a former wide receiver at Georgia Tech who had a grand total of 18 catches in his NFL career.

All the 6-6, 255-pound Waller did last season was become quarterback Derek Carr’s receiver, making 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns.

Now, ESPN has rated Waller as the fifth-best tight end in the NFL, behind George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers, Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles and Rob Gronkowski of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

However, Carr disagrees with ESPN, having said: “(Waller) is the best tight end in the NFL. … I think he doesn’t get nearly enough credit—and he never will because of what he can do with the ball in his hands—but he’s an exceptional blocker, way better than most at his position. And that’s saying a lot coming for a guy that came from wide receiver.”

The 27-year-old Waller was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round (No. 204 overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech, and his personal problems have been well-documented.

Waller was suspended by the NFL for substance abuse for four games in 2016 and for the entire 2017 season for the same reason. He got a new lease on life when the Raiders signed him off the Ravens practice squad in November of 2018.

Coach Jon Gruden seemed to know what Waller was going to do even before last season started.

“Darren Waller’s been really good,” Gruden said of his new starting tight end. “Really, really good. … Since the time he’s walked in here, he’s been one of the most impressive guys on our team.

“He learns fast. He is fast. He’s extremely talented. I think he’s going to be one of the best-kept secrets in the league. I really believe he’s got a future if he keeps working like he is.”

Added cornerback Daryl Worley, after trying to cover Waller in practice: “I think Waller will be a top guy in this league at the tight end position.”

They were right.

Waller was named as an alternate for the 2019 AFC team for the Pro Bowl, and anybody who was paying attention believes he was robbed when Kelce couldn’t play because of an injury and Jack Doyle of the Indianapolis Colts was chosen over Waller to replace him.

Gruden knew how far he had come.

“I think it’s the greatest story in the game (in 2019),” Gruden said. “I haven’t seen anything like it. I’ve been coaching a long time and I’ve seen the game played at every level.

“This guy had hit rock bottom, was a wide receiver at Georgia Tech, and was just starting to play the position of tight end. You know, he came to us last year, and it’s an unbelievable accomplishment—what he’s done to get his life together off the field.

… I’m so proud of him.”

Waller doesn’t want to stop there.

To that end, he is one of several receivers, including Hunter Renfrow and Zay Jones, who have worked out with Carr during the offseason in Las Vegas.

“I faced a bunch of new on-field challenges during the season, from extra coverages to an expanded role,” Waller said. “I’ve had to create separation in tough circumstances and have found patience in an effort that can be frustrating. I feel like there has been growth in all aspects of my game, but I also know there’s progress left to be made. There’s a lot of work to be done.

“I’ve compiled a list of things that need to be improved. The steps in my progress and my development are already underway.”

With the additions of rookie wide receivers Henry Ruggs, Lynne Bowden Jr., and Bryan Edwards, plus the return to health of Tyrell Williams, Waller might not be called on as much and his numbers might not be as good as a year ago.

However, he figures to be at least as good, if not better in 2020.

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