Darren Waller deserved to make the Pro Bowl. Stats from a breakout year and the profound impact on this Raiders team demanded it, but he was left off the original All-Star roster.
The elite tight end didn’t even raise his shoulders to shrug. He no longer longs for outside approval. Doesn’t do him any good. While he’d enjoy experiencing the All-Star treatment, he didn’t waste time worrying about being named an alternate behind AFC Pro Bowlers Travis Kelce (a lock) and Mark Andrews (a more suspect selection).
“What other people think doesn’t fall under my control, so I don’t take it personally,” Waller said in an interview with NBC Sports California. “I can’t control what’s valued more, whether it’s catches or yards or touchdowns or whether you’re a higher seed. I don’t stress over things like that. I never thought I would be a Pro Bowler, so to even be considered is a blessing to me.
“I feel like I cared about what people thought for too long. That’s not healthy for me. I just focus on what I’m doing and what I can do better.”
Waller has made great progress this season and was rewarded with a big-money contract extension. Let’s ignore for a second the personal strides he continues to make in sobriety that paved the way for professional growth, those that make him the NFL’s greatest breakout story and someone easy to cheer for.
The secret’s out on Waller and has been for months, meaning the Raiders’ best receiving option is often blanketed and bracketed in coverage. He has worked hard to fight through that and perform well, with 84 catches for 1,038 yards and three touchdowns heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale at Denver. He has exceeded 100 yards in two of his last four games, proof that he’s getting better at being the primary defensive focus.
“I’ve faced a bunch of new on-field challenges during this season, from extra coverages to an expanded role,” Waller said. “I’ve really had to create separation in tough circumstances and have found patience in an effort that can be frustrating. I feel like there has been growth in all aspects of my game, but I also know there’s progress left to be made. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
He already ranks among the league’s top tight ends in every metric, from receiving totals to run-blocking work. That true despite a lack of NFL playing experience, with so much of his early career, lost to suspensions for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
Those issues have been well documented mostly because of Waller’s willingness to discuss them. He’s an open book about his troubled past with alcohol and drugs, hoping that his redemption story can inspire someone going through a difficult time. He spends part of every week doing charitable work with the team, staying active and open in the community.
“I think it’s the greatest story in the game this year,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “I haven’t seen anything like it. I’ve been coaching a long time and I’ve seen the game played at every level.
“This guy had hit rock bottom, was a wide receiver at Georgia Tech just starting to play the position of tight end. You know, he came to us about this time last year, and it’s an unbelievable accomplishment -- what he’s done to get his life together off the field. It’s really a rare, almost unprecedented thing that I’ve seen happen. Where a guy comes in here really as a rookie tight end and catch 80 passes and, I think, prove that he can do just about anything you ask him to do. I’m so proud of him.”
Waller’s ego hasn’t inflated now that he’s arrived. He follows a narrow, trusted path that has worked well over the past few years and has no plans to change it now. This season’s not over yet but Waller’s already working on how to improve in the next one and build off a Pro-Bowl worthy season.
“I’ll take it easy for a little while after the season to rest of up physically, but [position coach Frank Smith] and I are already compiling a list of things that need to be improved,” Waller said. “The season will be over soon, but the next steps in my progress and my development are already underway.”
Christmas seems as good time as any to acknowledge a player plucked off the Ravens practice squad last year after Greg Olson was wowed by his pre-game warmups before a 2018 game in Baltimore and developed into a top-tier player with an improbable, inspiring backstory.
“From the very first day we saw him, I said he’s the most impressive athlete on this team, and now after one year I could say he might be the most impressive athlete that I’ve seen in this league,” Gruden said. “That’s the kind of special talent that he is, and when you get to know him, and you realize what he’s gone through to get to this point, he’s also a special person. So, if you’re out there get a Waller jersey young people. He’s worth it.”