Having the career path that Darren Waller has had, it’s easy to see how he isn’t exactly a household name. The 6-6 tight end came into the league as a wide receiver. He was a 6th round pick by the Ravens out of Georgia Tech where he had a career 51 catches for 971 yards and 9 touchdowns in three years with the Yellowjackets.
Despite his low college production, you don’t find many 6-6 receivers who can run a 4.46 40 as Waller did at the 2015 combine. That’s not among the top performers at wide receiver, but it’s lightning fast for a tight end. Only two TE’s the past decade have run faster 40s than that.
Still, the Ravens tried him at wide receiver first. And things got off to a very rocky start.
As a rookie he appeared in just six games and had just 2 catches for 18 yards before landing on injured reserve. Then he was suspended four games for violating the league policy on substance abuse.
While he was recovering and serving his suspension, the Ravens switched him to tight end. So, Waller packed on 20 pounds and switched positions.
As a tight end, Waller’s numbers improved, though they were still nothing that would grab a lot of attention. His second season, in 12 games, he caught 10 passes for 85 yards and 2 touchdowns. Still, it could have been the springboard to better things. Then he was popped again for substance abuse, this time costing him an entire season.
He was reinstated during training camp and eventually was cut and placed on the team’s practice squad, where he stayed for most of the 2018 season.
That’s where Darren Waller was exactly six months ago. A two-time suspended, low-round drafted former wide receiver on a practice squad. He was probably lucky to even be employed by an NFL team at that point. And yet as of the first day of Raiders OTA’s, Waller is the Raiders’ first team tight end and Jon Gruden had this to say about him.
“Since the time he’s walked in here, he’s been one of the most impressive guys on our team,” Gruden said of Waller. “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.”
So, how did we get here?
On November 27 of last year, the Raiders plucked the 26-year-old off the Ravens’ practice squad and two weeks later, he was suited up in Silver & Black. After his first game with the Raiders week 14 in Cincinnati in which he had a 44-yard catch and a 21-yard run, offensive coordinator Greg Olson spoke highly of his newly discovered weapon at tight end.
“Tremendous athlete,” Olson said of Waller. “I think it’s very rare that you find someone with that height and weight that runs as well as he does. So, he’s got a rare combination of height, speed and the fact that he was a college receiver, he’s got tremendous receiving skills as well. He’s a pretty lucky find.”
Over the final three games of the Raiders’ season, Waller caught six passes and had 96 yards from scrimmage which nearly matched his entire career total with the Ravens (103 yards).
Even still, Waller has just 16 catches for 175 yards in his career and the Raiders are now looking to him to be their starting tight end, replacing the team’s leading receiver and Pro Bowler Jared Cook.
“[He] and our tight ends have big shoes to fill,” said Derek Carr Tuesday after OTA practice. . . “They all have big shoes to fill, we threw the ball a lot to Jared and obviously we had injuries at wide out and things like that, so we had to in certain situations. But, Jared made a whole bunch of plays. Darren has the skillset, he has the want-to, he has the aggression to do it, now he just has to go do it. I’m really excited about him.”
Whether it was always the Raiders’ intention to make Waller the guy going into this season or not remains to be seen. But that’s the situation they put themselves in by not selecting one of the top tight ends in this draft. The tight end who made the most sense was Iowa’s Noah Fant. Mike Mayock was sure to point out during the draft that he sees the same physical abilities in Waller.
“I was talking to Waller upstairs today. Boy, I thought we almost drafted...the minute I looked at him and shook his hands I thought it was Noah Fant. You know, from a height, size perspective, he looked very similar and he’s a very athletic kid,” said Mayock.
The Raiders didn’t ignore the tight end position in the draft. They pulled Foster Moreau out of LSU in the fourth round. But Moreau isn’t here to take Waller’s job. He bumped veteran blocking tight end Lee Smith off the roster while Tom Cable got his guy Luke Willson as the current first team blocking tight end.
If his head coach, GM, and quarterback are correct about him, Darren Waller won’t be much of a secret anymore.