It was day one of Raiders minicamps. Derek Carr drops back and throws a perfect ball 25 yards downfield over the outstretched arms of a defensive back and into the hands of a long outstretched arms of an athletic, leaping tight end who pulls down the tough catch with ease just inbounds along the right sideline.
If he wasn’t wearing his number, you’d be wonder ‘Who was that?’
That...is Darren Waller. a 6-6, 255-pound converted wide receiver who has hung around the fringes of the NFL the past four years, teasing his coaches with his immense potential.
The Ravens kept him around for four years, waiting for him to blossom. And right about the time he looked like he was ready to break out, he began failing NFL drug tests. He was suspended for four games in 2016 after popping positive for marijuana and then again the following year, leading to being suspended for the entire 2017 season.
When he returned, he was relegated to the practice squad. That’s where Jon Gruden found him and decided to bring him in. Now, after just four games with the team, Gruden is relying on Waller as the number one tight end.
“Since he’s been here he’s been one of our most impressive players,” Gruden said after Tuesday’s minicamp practice. He played a key role last year when he got here. He’s got some big shoes to fill. I know he respects that. He’s versatile, he’s smart, he’s fast, he wants to do good, and he’s a great kid.”
It’s not the first time his coaches have went to bat for him, knowing how talented and physically gifted he is. But it’s a big leap of faith for Gruden to look to Waller as the number one tight end. It’s something Waller says means a lot and he feels the pressure to live up to Gruden’s expectations of him.
“The thing with me is…I feel like people have always had faith in me, but it was like I didn’t really have faith in myself,” said Waller. “So it’s part of doing my part, doing my half because a lot of coaches have stuck their neck out for me and what I’ve given them in return isn’t what they deserve or what the team deserved. For Coach Gruden to say that, I feel like I’m at a place in my life where I can build off of that and make the most of my abilities and what God gave me. That’s just what I plan on doing.”
In order to be the player Gruden sees in him, his first priority is to be disciplined off the field. And then go from there.
“Staying clean, No. 1, of course,” Waller added. “Just doing something every day involving football and making sure that I know that all I have is today. I don’t really have any days that are promised. I can’t live my life that way.”
On the football field, it’s mostly about getting stronger. He is a long, gifted receiver. But tight ends carry the unique distinction of having to go from being a receiving threat on one play to blocking a 270-pound outside speed rusher on the next play. Oh, and he’s got to try and replace Pro Bowl tight end Jared Cook. That is going to take some doing.
“It’s a whole lot of work, a whole lot of uncomfortable work,” said Waller. “I’ve been able to learn that the most uncomfortable work is the one that pays off and makes things much more enjoyable, makes you feel a lot better about things that you’re doing. It’s just been a whole lot of hard work. A whole lot of making sure that I’m being consistent. I’ve always been somebody that’s shown flashes and has been able to make plays and they’d be like, ‘Oh, if only he could do this.’ He has the potential but then it’s like potential only means if you only do it. Now it’s just doing the work, putting in the extra. Going over and above because before I would just do what was asked of me instead of doing what it takes to place myself ahead of the pack and to be where I want to be. It’s taken a whole lot of changing on my behalf.”
There’s a long way to go for Waller. The coaches in Baltimore clearly liked him, but it wasn’t enough to keep him on the regular season roster and protect him from being poached by another coach.
Gruden sees him much like he does several other of his reclamation projects. Players like Daryl Worley and Richie Incognito for example. Here Gruden speaks of Worley, but he could easily be speaking of Waller.
“He’s a tough guy, he’s also had some adversity in his career but I got a lot of respect for the way a man can get up off the ground and dust himself off given another opportunity and that’s what Incognito is doing, and that’s what Worley is doing and that’s what the Raiders are here to help them do,” said Gruden.
Raiders fans classically love the idea of reclamation projects. A fanbase that has long seen themselves and the organization as misfits, tends to welcome misfits. It’s how Al Davis built the great teams of the 70s and 80s. Whether it is still a successful formula depends, I suppose, on what qualities you value in these castoffs and how often the risk pays off.
Waller knows what he needs to do. And he has the talent to do it. Whether he has the intangibles is what Gruden is banking on.