To call Oakland’s off-season tumultuous would be an understatement.
The team kicked the year off by trading for All-Pro receiver, Antonio Brown, spent the spring denying rumors that they were looking to trade Pro Bowl quarterback, Derek Carr, and spent the Summer on HBO. The week before the season started, the team was dealt a pretty significant blow, as Brown sabotaged his own employment, intentionally being as difficult as possible in efforts to be cut. Between the Antonio Brown debacle, the Hard Knocks exposure, and the fact that this is the last season in Oakland, you’d be forgiven for thinking the team would be distracted when they faced off against the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football.
However, that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, all the outside noise galvanized the team, and they manhandled their division rival. With Tyrell Williams taking Browns’ spot as the team’s number one receiver, and rookie Hunter Renfrow being most useful in the slot, there were concerns about who the team’s number two receiver would be. Would it be veterans Ryan Grant or J.J. Nelson, who would’ve found themselves fourth and fifth on the depth chart had Brown stayed? What about undrafted rookie Keelan Doss, who stole everyone’s hearts during Hard Knocks and an exceptional preseason? At the end of the day, it was none of them. Instead, it was tight end Darren Waller, also known as the next big thing.
Darren Waller: The Next Big Thing
Everyone knew what Darren Waller could do when the Raiders signed him in November 2018. The Baltimore Ravens actually drafted Darren Waller to play wide receiver with a sixth-round pick back in 2015. A fun fact about that pick? The Baltimore Ravens got that pick for linebacker Rolando McClain. Yes, that Rolando McClain. Waller was a fun prospect because even though he was very raw, he had unique gifts. At 6’6, 240 pounds, he ran a 4.46 40 yard dash and had very reliable hands. His issue was he wasn’t a great route runner and was seen as having a very low floor.
Even if his development as a player wasn’t where it needed to be, he had bigger problems. Waller dealt with multiple suspensions, eventually missing a total of 20 regular-season games due to suspension. Waller struggled with his addiction, as detailed on Hard Knocks over the Summer, but eventually, overcame his demons and got clean. His sacrifices were rewarded when Jon Gruden saw Waller running routes before the Raiders played the Baltimore Ravens last season. Gruden was intrigued and signed him off of Baltimore’s practice squad.
Before the season ended, Waller had caught six passes for 75 yards. He also had one rushing attempt, which he took for 21 yards. Jared Cook left in the off-season, and after being Derek Carr’s go-to target, the Raiders had a vacancy at the position. They brought in a couple of veterans and drafted LSU’s Foster Moreau, but nobody that necessarily grabbed headlines. Jon Gruden sang Waller’s praises, but nobody assumed he would actually be Oakland’s starting tight end when the season started.
But on Monday Night Football, Darren Waller was there on the opening play when Derek Carr handed the ball off to Josh Jacobs for four yards. Waller was in on the next play as well, another run from Jacobs. On third down, when Carr found Ryan Grant for the first down, Darren Waller remained on the field. In fact, Waller stayed on the field for all 58 of Oakland’s offensive snaps, nearly matching last season’s totals with seven catches for 70 yards in the win.
In fact, Waller had a catch in all but three of Oakland’s eight drives, including a 25-yard bomb on first and 15 on the first drive. Carr mercilessly exposed cornerback Isaac Yiadom (which sounds suspiciously like Isaac Yankem, if you know, you know) all night, but it was when he was matched up with Waller that things really went badly for Denver. And therein lies the secret to Waller’s brilliance.
Waller isn’t just a wide receiver out of position, like say Jimmy Graham or even Marcel Reece. He can line up just about anywhere. He can play from the end of the line, like a conventional tight end, or outside like a wide receiver. Against Denver, he lined up on the line, in the slot, and out wide, and Carr found him every time. With someone like Waller, the possibilities are endless.
Just imagine, the Raiders come out in a pretty standard running formation. Tight ends Darren Waller and Foster Moreau are on the line like they’re preparing to block. Williams and Grant are outside, Carr is under center, and Josh Jacobs is behind him. The front seven reads run and creep towards the line, showing blitz. Carr recognizes the blitz and calls an audible. Suddenly Carr steps back into the shotgun, next to Jacobs, and Waller moves over into the slot. Effortlessly, the Raiders have gone from a pretty common running formation to a three-receiver set.
Waller’s unique size, speed, and ability make him a swiss-army-knife for Gruden’s new offense, allowing a kind of versatility that not even Jared Cook could provide. Nobody will confuse Waller for Joe Thomas as a blocker, but he does enough to protect Carr and pave the way for Jacobs as well. Ryan Grant might be number two on the depth chart, but I fully expect Waller to become Derek Carr’s second look if Tyrell Williams is covered. In fact, just based on his targeting sheet from his career before this season, don’t be surprised if Carr looks Waller’s way first sometimes.
Raider Nation is tired of hearing about you-know-who, so let’s stop talking about him. Let’s talk about the Raiders who want to be Raiders. Sure, this offensive could be more explosive if other players stuck around, but let’s not overlook the players that did. Darren Waller wasn’t on anyone’s radar outside of Raider Nation before the season started, but I bet he is now.