ALAMEDA -- Darren Waller had one great Wednesday. The breakout tight end practiced with an Oakland team reliant on him to consistently produce in the run and pass game, and then signed a contract extension that will keep him with the Raiders through the 2023 season.
He got a fat raise and financial stability for life, a surefire sign the Raiders believe he can be a top-tier tight end for years to come.
His celebration, however, was subdued.
“I’m not really into spending money on a lot of things,” Waller said Thursday. "I did go to Walgreen’s and buy some Perrier. That’s what I like. That’s my go-to beverage right now.”
Don’t take it to mean the moment wasn’t meaningful. It was a powerful one for someone who nearly threw his career away over substances of abuse, which got him suspended by the NFL twice while in Baltimore. The second ban without pay lasted a full year and forced him to work at a grocery store to make ends meet.
Now he’s recognized as one of the NFL’s best tight ends, in the midst of a breakout season. He was set for restricted free agency next year, where the Raiders essentially controlled his rights. The Silver and Black chose to pay him anyway and commit to him long-term.
That, considering all Waller has been through, meant more than money.
“I feel like it shows I can contribute to a team and be reliable, someone who can be counted on,” Waller said. “That wasn’t the case before. I just try to be a good teammate and be part of this family. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
The Raiders have helped him integrate into the recovery community after signing him off Baltimore’s practice squad later last season. He signed his first Raiders contract in 2018, in the exact same room he signed a major extension less than a year later. It was a powerful moment that made him reflect on just how far he has come, now more than two years clean and sober.
“There was a big wave of that yesterday,” Waller said. “ I usually reflect a ton in my life because I’m so grateful for where I am. I was talking to my family and friends and my trainer, who helped me get back into shape, and it was pretty overwhelming for sure. But it’s in the best possible way.”
Waller’s all about stacking good days, an effort he’s getting better at. It’s paying real dividends in Oakland, where he has a powerful support system. It’s hard for him to think so far into the future, where his contract lasts four full years into the team’s Las Vegas relocation.
“It’s incredible for me,” Waller said. “It’s hard for me to think about what I’ll be like in 2024. I just try to let the days stack up, but it means a lot to me that they would do that. This whole thing is still surreal to me, because last year I was sitting in that same room coming over from Baltimore, and I just didn’t want to mess this up. Now to have something in place for a longer-term is incredible. I’m really looking forward to what’s next.”
Waller looks forward to being recognized among the tight ends he watches every week. He goes over every game Travis Kelce and Zach Ertz play. He likes watching Jimmy Graham and Greg Olsen and Cameron Brate. He wants to be recognized in that class of tight ends and known as someone who performed at an elite level for a long time.
“I spend time on the off-day watching other guys in the league just looking at their game and what from that I can apply to mine,” Waller said. “I can compare myself to guys who have been doing it a long time. I’m kind of new to this, but I want to be in the conversation, and I think it’s realistic for me. I know there are a lot of people here who will help me accomplish that.”