Unfortunately, the fact that Darren Waller has developed into one of the best tight ends in the National Football League has been overlooked a bit because the Las Vegas Raiders faded late in the season and failed to make the playoffs.
However, anyone who looks at things objectively has to say that Waller now ranks with Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers, and Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles as the cream of the crop at their position.
The 6-6, 255-pound Waller, recently named to the Pro Bowl for the first time, has caught 98 passes for 1,079 yards and 13 touchdowns in 15 games in his second season as a starter.
“He’s a great player and he’s played such a major role in so many different positions,” Coach Jon Gruden said after Saturday night’s crushing 26-25 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen play football.”
The 27-year-old Waller caught five passes for 112 yards against the Dolphins to give him 537 yards in his last four games, the second-most in a four-game span among tights end since the 1970 merger, behind only Jimmy Graham’s 548 in 2013.
Having overcome substance abuse problems early in his career after being selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round (No. 204 overall) of the 2015 NFL draft out of George Tech, Waller has nine games with more than 100 receiving yards in the last two seasons—the most by an NFL tight end during that span.
In addition, last Saturday Waller broke tight end Todd Christensen’s franchise record of 95 receptions in one season by a tight end set in 1986.
“Congratulations to Darren Waller. He’s a great player,” the late Christensen’s son, Teren, said in a post on Twitter during the game.
Waller and Christensen are the only tight ends in Raiders history to have more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, and only Waller has 90-plus catches in two straight years.
“It’s definitely cool,” Waller told reporters after the Dolphins game. “It means a lot to break a record. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that before.
“I appreciate everything that goes into (setting a record). The quarterback throwing it, the time that he needs from the offensive line to throw it, the receivers that are running their routes, and clearing out areas for me to make a play. So a lot of people go into it.
“ ... I’m just glad to be part of this team.”
Waller stepped up last season after the Raiders lost starting tight end Jared Cook to the New Orleans Saints in free agency.
After making only 18 receptions in the first three years he was active, having been suspended for the 2017 season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy for the second time, Waller was a big surprise by catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns in his first season as a starter.
In only two seasons, he has become another standout in the Raiders' great line of tight ends that includes Christensen, Cook, Hall of Famer Dave Casper, Raymond Chester, Billy Cannon, Bob Moore, Ricky Dudley, Zach Miller, and Ethan Horton.
Waller was snubbed when it came to the 2019 Pro Bowl, but Gruden saw bigger and better things ahead.
“We think he’s a superstar,” Gruden said before this season. “We think he’s a great tight end. … We’re happy to have our guy. He can do it all. He can block. He can run any route. He’s got great stamina.”
Waller needs six catches in Sunday’s finale against the Denver Broncos to equal the Raiders franchise record of 104 receptions in a season set by wide receiver Tim Brown in 1997.
Records or not, Waller already has established himself in Raiders lore in only 35 games, and perhaps the best is yet to come.
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