Darren Waller (Dynasty Outlook)
The Dynasty Doctor / @DynastyDoctorFF
The tight end position has long been argued with respect to strategy. Do you lock up a stud in start-ups or trade for a top-tier guy? Do you grab those late-round fliers or rotate a group based on match-up? Regardless of your preferred TE strategy, we are at times blessed with diamonds in the rough. Entering the 2019 NFL season, if you were lucky enough to draft him late or pick him up before Week 1, you were paid off in spades. Now, who is he? Not only was he converted from a wide receiver to a tight end, but this man overcame his struggle with substance abuse. He’s a walking success story. This is no other than the “Baller” himself, Darren Waller. Let’s dissect his journey, shall we?
(Photo Credit: Jeffrey Phelps, The Associated Press)
Darren Waller was a 3-star prospect, who committed to Georgia Tech as a safety. Waller ended up playing for the Yellow Jackets as a wide receiver. As a whole, Georgia Tech did not utilize the aerial attack significantly during Waller’s tenure, as they did not eclipse 2,000 passing yards in any of Waller’s three collegiate seasons (2012, 2013, 2014). As a result, his college statistics are fairly underwhelming – 8-162-0 (2012), 17-367-3 (2013), and 26-442-6 (2014). The silver lining was how he finished amongst his teammates; Waller finished second in receiving yards and touchdowns in his Junior and Senior seasons. Not only did Waller’s size (6’5”/6’6”) and speed allow him to attack jump balls in the endzone as well as stretch the field for big plays, he had ample opportunity to learn good blocking technique. One thing to mention was a two-game suspension Waller received during the start of his Senior season, for violating team rules. One source claims that there was another collegiate suspension for Waller, but I cannot dig up the details or confirm it.
Darren Waller’s workout metrics are elite. There’s a slight tweak that needs to be made to that statement. Darren Waller’s workout metrics are elite *as a TE. His metrics would have looked different if he was stacking up to the WR group. According to Player Profiler, all of his metrics are in the 80th percentile or better, with four out of five in the 90th percentile or better. Wow. His agility score sits in the 81st percentile (11.32), his burst score in the 90th percentile (127.3), catch radius in the 96th percentile (10.39), his speed score in the 99thpercentile (131.6), and his 40-yard dash in the 100th percentile (4.46). I’ll say it again for you. Wow. His college dominator score is 32.1%, good enough for the 91st percentile. This metric is based on Waller’s share of Georgia Tech’s receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. As per Player Profiler, a percentage greater than 30% is “extraordinary”. Remember the silver lining? There it is, with numerical significance. Let’s put another metric in other words. Waller’s 40-yard dash is faster than the average wide receiver or cornerback time. Not bad. Let’s look at numbers from the most recent NFL Draft Class. For comparison’s sake, his time is sandwiched between Jerry Jeudy (4.45) and Jalen Reagor (4.47). Yes. Wipe the lens of your glasses. Clean your screen. You read that right. Jerry Jeudy and Jalen Reagor. In college, Reagor was clocked as having the second-fastest game speed only behind Henry Ruggs. Safe to say that Darren Waller is a fast man. Ultimately, Darren Waller was drafted in the 2015 NFL Draft. He was selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round (204th overall) as a wide receiver.
Waller’s career started off very rocky. Waller only caught a couple of passes in his rookie season, but nonetheless tasted NFL action early on. A hamstring injury hampered and cut his rookie campaign short, limiting him to only six games. He was placed on the injured reserve list, ending his 2015 season.
In the offseason, Darren Waller planned on making the switch to the tight end position. Waller started off the 2016 NFL season on the wrong foot. He violated the league’s substance-abuse policy and was subsequently suspended for the first four weeks. The Georgia Tech product appeared in the remaining twelve regular-season games, registering double-digit receptions and his first two NFL touchdowns (10-85-2). Waller remained a negligible part of the Baltimore offense.
(Photo Credit: Baltimore Sun)
History tends to repeat itself. The 2017 NFL season was no exception for Darren Waller. A second violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy suspended him for the year. Waller’s NFL outlook seemed bleak. After serving his suspension, Darren was reinstated. Waller has been open about his time spent in Baltimore on HBO’s “Hard Knocks”. He referred to himself as being a “vegetable” and “being high literally every day, whatever he could get his hands on”. Darren said that he was “plotting to sabotage [his] way out of the league”. He’s been sober since August 12th, 2017, and owes his personal transformation to the time he spent in rehabilitation. Congratulations Darren, that’s no small feat. We applaud you and we will continue to root for you.
In late November of the 2018 season, the Oakland Raiders decided to take a gamble on the Ravens practice squad player and signed him. In four games, he threw together a half dozen catches for a modest 75 yards. In limited action, offensive coordinator Greg Olson described Waller as a “tremendous athlete” and that “he’s a pretty lucky find”. Did Darren step out with the right foot first? Only time would tell.
The 2019 NFL season was the start of something new for Darren. A fresh season. A clean slate. A new attitude. Jared Cook signed with the New Orleans Saints in the offseason, leaving the starting TE gig wide open. This job was for the taking and all eyes were on Darren. Jon Gruden was not shy about Waller’s potential for the 2019 season. He referred to him as “one of the best-kept secrets in the league”. Gruden, Derek Carr, and Mike Mayock believed that Waller could rise to the occasion. We all know what happened next. Darren Waller put the league on notice. He played an entire 16-game season and posted an absolutely elite stat line, 90-1,145-3. Talk about a target monster. He easily led the Raiders in receptions and receiving yards for the season. Amongst his fellow NFL TEs, Waller ranked third in targets (117), second in receptions and second in receiving yards. Darren was ultimately named as an alternate to the Pro Bowl. Forget about a target monster, talk about a TURNAROUND! What. A. Comeback. Not only in football but in life. Waller’s most productive game log was against the Vikings in Week 3, in which he registered 13 receptions for 134 yards. He reached 100 yards receiving on five separate occasions in 2019. Fantasy owners could not complain about the TE1 numbers that they got from Waller, as he was virtually free in most formats. If we’re being picky, his red-zone usage in 2019 was lower than other top-tier TEs. Darren only received 11 targets inside the 20 and four targets inside the 10. In comparison, Foster Moreau, another Raiders TE, had 7 targets inside the 20 and four targets inside the 10 in the same season. Nevertheless, as the focal point of the Raider's pass attack, 2020 looked to be bright for Darren Waller.
Waller has gotten off to a great start in 2020. His 28 targets through three weeks are good for 1st amongst all tight ends. Darren has already registered 20 catches for 159 yards and a TD. He was targeted a whopping 16 times in Week 2. It’s clearly evident that the Las Vegas aerial attack is and will continue to feature Waller prominently. The cherry on top of Darren Waller’s strong 2020 start was that his TD came inside the red zone. Stocks up.
Las Vegas Raiders Offense
Greg Olson is currently in his fifth season as Offensive Coordinator for the Raiders. Olson is on his second OC stint with the Raiders; his first spanning the 2013 and 2014 seasons and his second tenure started in the 2018 season. Let’s dive into the Raiders with Carr and Olson piloting the offense. The 2014, 2018, and 2019 seasons, in which Carr and Olson were in the silver and black, one tight end was featured. Get ready for this throwback. Mychal Rivera was the TE1 for Oakland in 2014, posting a 58-534-4 stat line. Rivera was tied for second in team targets, was second in receptions, and accounted for 15.5% of the team’s receiving yards. In 2018, Jared Cook was the Raiders TE1, posting a 68-896-6 stat line. Cook led the team in targets, was tied for the team lead in targets, and accounted for 22.1% of the team’s receiving yards. He was the only Raider to be targeted more than 100 times in 2018. The 2019 season was no different. Darren Waller was the TE1 and his 90-1,145-3 stat line shattered expectations, which was good for 27.9% of the team’s receiving yards. Do we see a trend here? The Raiders offense loves the tight end position and making an effort to feature them in the offense. I see this trend continuing in 2020 and beyond.
Darren Waller’s injury history has not been significant. It’s predominantly minor. He sprained his ankle in 2016, which did not keep him out of any games. He sustained a concussion in 2016, which kept him out for one game. An aforementioned hamstring injury landed Waller on IR ending his rookie campaign. Another hamstring sprain limited Waller in 2016, but he still appeared in 12 games after he served his four-game suspension. The most significant aspect of his injury history was thumb surgery in the offseason. It was not deemed serious and he made a full recovery. I have no injury concerns with Waller, and neither should you.
Darren Waller was truly a diamond in the rough. He overcame and continues to conquer the monster known as substance abuse and is a bonafide NFL superstar. The Raiders could not have asked for a greater contribution from Waller in 2019. They have extreme confidence in his ability to contribute in the long term and inked Darren to a contract extension through the 2023 season. I get it, Darren just turned 28 earlier in September. To put this in perspective, other top TEs are elder to Darren, including Travis Kelce (31 in October) and Zach Ertz (30 in November). As a dynasty owner, everyone wants the youngest elite TE or the youngest position player who can contribute significantly. Waller’s 28 years of age should not scare you away one bit. In the beginning weeks of the 2023 season, Waller will turn 31. Travis Kelce and George Kittle will turn 36 and 31, respectively, in the final years of their contract extensions (through the 2025 season). If you were able to snag Waller last season for a cheap-to-free price tag, well done. Another victory lap for you. If you took him in start-up drafts, congratulations. You’ve got a real one in Waller. Darren Waller was being drafted at an ADP of ~90 in August. In September, his overall ADP is ~82 and is ranked as TE11/12 (as per Dynasty League Football). In my book, this is a flat-out steal. He’s a high-end/mid-tier TE1 with a high floor and a high ceiling who will continue to deliver for Raider Nation and your fantasy teams. You should be confident in Darren’s dynasty outlook due to his large target share, athleticism, and contract status. He’ll continue to be a “Baller” in 2020 and the years to come.
(Photo Credit: USA Today)