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Raiders gamble on Darren Waller paying off ‘You don’t find those guys. They’re not around’

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NFL: Preseason-Oakland Raiders at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Seemingly hidden amongst some the rough past few weeks for the Raiders is a gem. While the offense is sputtering and the defense is purging, there is one bright spot. Tight end Darren Waller.

The fourth year tight end was signed late last season off the Ravens practice squad without much fanfare. And now he is third in the league in receiving yards (263) among tight ends and looks the part as well.

“We saw him catch balls against safeties and linebackers,” Derek Carr said of Waller. “Also we put him out wide and he’s running slant routes on some pretty good corners and we’re making 10, 12 yards on those. Again, you don’t want to ever get ahead of it, but we think he’s very special. Obviously the production is now showing up. What he doesn’t get enough credit for is he’ll one play get a reverse speed play, then the next play he’s blocking Hunter in pass protection, then the next he’s running a slant on Trae Waynes. You don’t find those guys. They’re not around. The fact that we have one of those is pretty awesome.”

Credit where it’s due for Jon Gruden signing Waller. But it wasn’t just about signing him. It was about taking what was a huge risk in making Waller the team’s number one tight end so quickly.

Back in March, with free agency approaching, Jared Cook had not been re-signed and the Raiders were openly saying they were going to let him test his market, which almost always means a team is allowing a player to sign elsewhere in free agency. And he did sign elsewhere, agreeing to a deal with the New Orleans Saints.

Most, including myself, were wondering why the Raiders would do that. Cook was the team’s leading receiver in 2018, and headed to Pro Bowl as a result. It seemed extremely ill advised to let Derek Carr’s top target just walk away after such a season.

Adding to the risk of it all was Waller’s history with substance abuse, which he has openly discussed and caused him to miss the entire 2017 season. He shouldn’t have it held over his head and deserves a shot, but to let a Pro Bowl tight end leave and hand the position over to a player with his history and who was on a team’s practice squad just six months earlier was certainly a risk.

That risk is always there. A few good games doesn’t magically remove that risk. What you see on the field, however, is the reason Waller is worth that risk.

Not only is Waller Carr’s number one target — just as Cook was — but Waller has the second most catches (26) in the NFL at any position. Half of those catches (13) and yards (134) came last week in Minnesota on 14 targets. Also half his catches (13) have gone for first downs.

One thing I’ve said well before the season started was that Waller would have to be extremely talented or he wouldn’t have continued to get chances from NFL teams after his substance abuse relapses. A less talented player would have been out of the league long before now. We are seeing that talent, not to mention his strength of character that had Gruden go all in on him as their number one tight end. And at this point their number one receiver.