Without Jared Cook and Lee Smith, the Raiders tight end room will look different than it did last season. The team has addressed the position in free agency and in the draft, but apparently head coach Jon Gruden views returning player Darren Waller as one of the best-kept secrets. This “secrecy” begs the questions, who exactly is Darren Waller and why is he such a secret?
Last season was Waller’s first with Oakland but his third overall as he spent two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. His breakout (term used loosely) season was in 2016, when he converted to tight end and played in 12 games (three starts), and had two touchdowns. He entered the NFL as a wide receiver, but his size (6’6” 238lbs at the combine) allowed him to reinvent and potentially save his career. For what it’s worth, he now tips the scale at 255 pounds.
Waller played wide receiver at Georgia Tech and finished his career with 51 catches, 971 yards and nine touchdowns. While those numbers might not jump off the page, you have to consider that the Yellow Jackets ran the triple option and didn’t throw the ball very much. For example, 2014 was Waller’s most productive year at Tech (26 catches, 442 yards and 6 TDs) and the team averaged 7.6 completions per game, to go along with 1,882 passing yards on the season. This means Waller accounted for about 25 percent of his team’s passing attack.
What Waller brings to the table?
Speed is probably one of Waller’s best traits. He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the combine. However, that was 17 pounds ago, so I imagine he’s a bit slower now. He still has good speed for a tight end, as evidenced by his 44 yard near touchdown against the Bengals. This is how he will differentiate himself from the other tight ends on the Raiders roster. If the third year veteran can continue to show excellent run after the catch abilities, Gruden will work him into the game plan and find ways to get him the ball.
Playing in such a run heavy offense, Waller got plenty of opportunities to work on his run blocking. However, since Waller primarily played wide receiver, he doesn’t have as much experience blocking linebackers and defensive lineman. He will have to show that he can be an effective run blocker because Gruden’s offense requires that from the tight end position. Hopefully Waller’s background in the triple option offense will enhance his blocking abilities as a tight end.
Why is Waller such a secret?
I can think of two answers: the offense he ran in college and the position change. As mentioned above, Georgia Tech didn’t throw the ball much, so Waller didn’t have eye-popping numbers. I think this led him to fall under the radar a bit. I’m not trying to say he would have been a first round pick, but bigger numbers definitely could have helped improve his notoriety and draft stock. Also changing positions is never an easy process, especially in the NFL. When you combine these two factors, it’s easy to see how Waller fell through the cracks. With the open competition at tight end, Waller has a chance to go from unknown to NFL starter.
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