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Does Raiders tight end Darren Waller have top ten fantasy potential?

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Oakland Raiders v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

HBO’s Hard Knocks has awoken a sleeper the Raiders had been trying to keep under wraps; their new weapon at tight end. A former sixth round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens, the Raiders signed tight end Darren Waller from the Ravens practice squad late last season. In very brief action with the team, Waller tallied six receptions for 75 yards, but he could be in store for a lot more action than that in 2019.

For those fans who have avidly watched Hard Knocks, the series has done a good job of highlighting Waller’s story. The young tight end spoke openly about being high on drugs at practice and ultimately being suspended from the league for substance abuse.

Anyone who has been at or around the Raiders facility during training camp and the preseason has seen what Waller can do. Adjectives being thrown around in conjunction with Waller’s name include unstoppable and freakish.

For fantasy purposes, those adjectives really stick out. Could Waller end up being a top ten fantasy option at the tight end position? It is not that much of a stretch, frankly, it’s well within the realm of possibilities for him.

Waller has an interesting opportunity ahead of him, one that is largely unprecedented. How does a player with only 18 career receptions step in and immediately become a top tier fantasy option? One way is to Inherit a role in an offense with a lot of vacated targets.

Last season Derek Carr leaned heavily on tight end Jared Cook, who has since moved on to sign with the New Orleans Saints. Obviously those circumstances included the team trading away number one wide receiver Amari Cooper and having practically no other options outside of Cook. Nonetheless, Carr showed an affinity for utilizing the tight end position.

In his two seasons in Oakland, Cook was targeted 187 times — 86 times in 2017 and 101 times last season. He turned those targets into 54 receptions for 688 yards and two touchdowns in 2017, and 68 receptions for 896 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2018. In fantasy, those finishes are 13th (2017) and 5th (2018).

Now that Cook is gone and Waller is in, Waller projects to assume a large portion of those targets. With Antonio Brown and other more talented options joining the offense, it is hard to imagine Waller getting 101 targets like Cook did a year ago.

However, we can get a relatively good idea of what the breakdown will be by position group. In 2018 the Raiders targeted wide receivers 49% of the time and tight ends 22% of the time.

In 2018 Carr attempted 553 passes, per those target shares that is 271 passes thrown to receivers and 122 passes thrown to tight ends. Assuming those numbers are at or about the same, that is 122 targets that will be divided among Waller and whoever else makes the roster at tight end.

Last season, Derek Carrier and Lee Smith accounted for 12 and 11 receptions respectively. This season it will be one of either Derek Carrier or Luke Wilson joining rookie Foster Moreau for the remaining roster spots. Moreau isn’t much of a receiving threat, and the winner of Carrier and Wilson doesn’t pose much of a threat either. But knowing Jon Gruden, he will still find a way to get them involved.

Best case scenario is that the Raiders offense improves this season so targets to each position group goes up slightly. With a very marginal bump, let’s say Carr throws to tight ends 125 times. Subtract 25 or 30 targets (at most) for Wilson/Carrier/Moreau and that leaves 95-100 targets for Waller.

With a similar number of targets in the previous two seasons Cook was able to turn in top 13 fantasy seasons. Assuming it is roughly 95 targets and say 60 receptions, that gives Waller ample opportunity for production.

Again, that is best case. Assuming the worst, the number of targets dwindles with Brown and new guys like Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow and the total is closer to 80. Even if Waller is only getting 65 targets, he still has potential to catch 40-45 passes and turn in a decent campaign.

Projecting somewhere in the middle, let’s say Waller halls in 50 receptions for 650 yards and 4 touchdowns. Last season’s tenth ranked tight end was Pittsburgh’s Vance McDonald who finished the season with 50 receptions for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. That type of a season would put Waller in that top ten region, and that isn’t even a best case scenario prediction.

As it stands, Waller is being drafted as the 22nd ranked tight end in standard scoring fantasy drafts, or in many cases he goes undrafted altogether. A player with the potential to be a top ten player at his position in the last round of the draft or on the waiver wire, Waller is a great sleeper candidate to target in any upcoming drafts or on the waiver wire.