Darren Waller shocked many around both Raider Nation and the NFL world with his breakout season in 2019. Before last season, he never had much of a chance to showcase his talents. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say he proved his worth. After all, the tight end had 90 catches for 1,145 yards in 2019. Also, he averaged 12.7 yards per catch and had three touchdowns.
What Made Waller Fit in with the Raiders?
One of the main reasons Waller was so good last year was because of Jon Gruden’s system. One of the things the Raiders head coach is terrific at is utilizing his tight ends. We saw Jared Cook have a career year in 2018. This past season, Waller was able to repeat the same feat. Gruden runs a methodical offense, one that is based around gaining clumps of yards in between the occasional big play. This worked perfectly for Waller, as you’ll see below.
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) November 24, 2019
These sorts of play-action check-downs can only work with a tight-end that has the athletic ability Waller possesses. He’s a tremendous blocker. However, when watching film, I was really able to appreciate how well he can deceive the defense. The play above is run as a play-action pass. You’ll see Waller act as a blocker for a second or two. At the same time, quarterback Derek Carr fakes the hand-off to Josh Jacobs. His defender bites on the play-action and Waller releases him at the perfect time to get open in the flat. His athletic ability allows him to extend this play into a 15-20 yard gain. Waller is the perfect tight end for Gruden’s offense, and the play above is a perfect example of that.
Another big reason for Waller’s success was his combination of size and athleticism. Waller stands at 6’6″, 256 lbs. His size helps him win 50/50 balls and it helps his blocking, but his speed is what makes him a complete player, and one of the best tight ends in the league.
Darren Waller for 75 yards 🏃💨pic.twitter.com/S14bU27Llq
— Raiders on NBCS (@NBCSRaiders) December 29, 2019
This play is absolute eye candy. Like the last play, this is a signature Gruden play call, and one that he loves his tight ends to run. Instead of faking a hand-off, Carr turns to his right as if he’s gonna throw a screen to Zay Jones. Waller holds the defender for a second to help sell the fake, and then slips off to catch the pass.
His Playmaking Prowess After the Catch Makes Him a Special Player
As I mentioned earlier, Gruden likes to call this type of play a lot which really helps Waller succeed. I’ve talked about how this offense is the perfect fit for Waller, but what he does after the catch proves just how much this offense needs him as well. How many tight ends can you name that are able to outrun defensive backs 75 yards down the field? His ability to do things like this after the catch is what makes Waller a special player. This play is one of the best the Raiders can draw up for Darren. Gruden and Carr pick a perfect play to set Waller up, and he’s able to do the rest with his speed.
Don’t Sleep on His Route Running Either
One more thing that helped Waller last year was his tremendous route-running. The best example I can give you is in the play below:
— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) September 29, 2019
This is a really smart play from Waller. While it may be hard to see from the video, the Colts are running a Cover 2, and Waller is running a 10-yard dig route. His job is essentially to get in between the safeties and linebackers as quickly as possible. Waller is able to get into that open space very quickly, but you see him slow down as soon as he realizes he’s open. By slowing down, Waller is able to stay open longer, giving Carr the opportunity to make the throw. Waller ran a great route, and then was able to read the defense and sit in the zone where he knew he was the most open.
Both Gruden and Waller understand the game of football very well. Last year, Gruden was repeatedly able to get Waller open, giving him plenty of chances to showcase his talent. What makes him an even better fit is his ability to read the defense and get himself open. When you combine that with his freakish athleticism, you have a star.
Reinforcements Will Only Add to His Playmaking Skills
Most of Waller’s qualities will obviously carry over into the 2020 season, including his athleticism and football IQ. Nonetheless, one thing that will help Waller improve is the quality of his teammates around him. Waller was able to succeed last year with Josh Jacobs being the only other player defenses really had to prepare for. That worked very well for the Raiders and Waller last year, as even with just a simple play-action fake handoff, Waller was able to get open and make some plays.
This offseason, the Raiders were able to add a lot of talent on offense, particularly through the draft. Henry Ruggs III is an absolute speed demon, and the likes of Lynn Bowden Jr. and Bryan Edwards bring both speed and physicality to the wide receiver position.
shannon sharpe set the record for most receiving yards by a tight end in a single game with 214
think darren waller breaks it tomorrow? pic.twitter.com/u2q6HkNXhK
— john sheeran (@John__Sheeran) November 16, 2019
I’ve mentioned how Waller can be utilized on screens and short flat routes, but Gruden loves to use him in ways similar to the video above as well. Here, Waller is going to run a crossing route over the middle of the field, and he runs it under a deeper post route from Tyrell Williams. Williams’ speed makes him a deep threat, so the corner has to respect that and cover him down the field. This opens up a ton of space for Waller to make the catch and gain some yards after.
Gruden loves to run Waller on routes like this, whether it’s an out route from the slot or a crossing route like the one above. Having fast receivers like Ruggs, Williams, Bowden, and more is going to leave a ton of open space for Waller on these routes. Moreover, when Waller lines up in the slot or on the line of scrimmage, he’s most likely going to be covered by a linebacker. Thanks to Waller’s exceptional speed, this creates a mismatch, and gives Carr and easy outlet to pick up some yards.
Waller really got to showcase his talent last year, thanks to Gruden’s offense and Waller’s terrific combination of size and speed. With the threat of Jacobs, Ruggs, Renfrow, and others, Waller should be in for an even better season in 2020.
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Top Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)