At the time that he signed his three-year contract extension last October, Darren Waller was one of the most sure-handed bets of the season, having caught 37 of 42 targets for 359 yards and no drops. But Waller was also one of the riskiest extensions because he had escaped near total anonymity up to that point in his career and was already 27 with 29 career receptions prior to the season.
Now after the two biggest tight end contracts we’ve seen in many respects have been handed out by the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, Waller has an opportunity to be the NFL’s best bargain at the position.
Last week, the 49ers gave tight end George Kittle a five-year, $75 million extension, a deal so big for his position that OverTheCap.com referred to it as the biggest “market buster” in a half-decade. Most rank Kittle as the best tight end in the NFL today as he gets exceptional marks in pass and run blocking while also averaging 80 yards per game and 10 yards per target. There’s an argument to be made for him as the most valuable player on the NFL’s best NFC team last season.
Shortly after, the Chiefs signed Travis Kelce to a four-year, $57.5 million extension, though his overall numbers won’t be as impressive because he is four years older than Kittle. Though Kelce may be getting $14.3 million per year on the extension, it is backloaded. There’s plenty of new money for Kelce, but his annual average salary from 2020-2023 is $10.5 million. The same salary that Jimmy Graham has had for quite awhile now.
That’s still considerably more than Waller.
Without a notable resume — and also without “NFL star” money in the bank yet and no guarantees past 2019 — Waller signed a deal that now pays him $7.25 million per season. The Raiders will pay him a $7.28 million base salary in 2020, followed by $6 million in 2021, then $6.25 million in 2022 and 2023. Las Vegas is also free to release Waller at any point after 2020 and will incur zero dead money.
It’s an unbelievable bargain with virtually no risk to the team for a tight end who ended up catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards and whose 9.8 yards per target is more than Kelce has had in any season since 2014. Kittle also had 9.8 yards per target in 2019. Waller also receives praise for his blocking, which is why Jon Gruden was able to use him on 91-percent of the team’s offensive snaps last season.
Kittle missed two games, but even before then he wasn’t on pace for 90-percent of San Francisco’s snaps. Kelce was in on 92-percent of snaps for Kansas City.
Should he put another season under his belt like the one he just had, the Raiders may have to reconsider the ridiculously cheap $6 million annual salary with no guarantees over three years for a player who could be one of their two or three most valuable on offense. After seeing deals for not only Kittle and Kelce, but Austin Hooper ($10.5 million AAV) and a franchise tag for Hunter Henry ($10.6 million for 2020), Waller also might need to reconsider what his true value is.