Darren Waller’s name came up a ton during this Raiders offseason program, always in a positive light.
The young receiving tight end flashed consistently during OTAs and minicamp, a mismatch that has dared fans to dream about another dominant skill player impacting this upcoming season.
Waller made a few big plays after joining the Raiders late last year the fan base certainly remembers, especially the 21-yard end around and the 44-yard catch-and-run in Cincinnati. The converted receiver from Georgia Tech has all the skills required to be a productive NFL player.
“We’ll we said, I think the last time we talked, since he’s been here he’s been one of our most impressive players,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “He played a key role last year when he got here. He’s got some big shoes to fill, I know he respects that, but he’s versatile, he’s smart, he’s fast. He wants to do good, he’s a great kid.”
Re-read last part: He wants to do good. That’s meaningful and a dead accurate for someone who squandered early portions of his NFL career. He was suspended twice for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, the second time for a full season. All those setbacks before age 26, all of them self inflicted
Waller isn’t wasting any more time. He’s dead set on maximizing a Raiders opportunity. This chance was set in motion late last year when the Raiders signed him off Baltimore’s practice squad. Then Gruden decided to let Jared Cook leave in free agency and didn’t draft a receiving tight end high, setting Waller up to be a featured player.
Waller absorbed all that but still didn’t dream big. This supreme athlete is the one-day-at-a-time type, an outlook that has blazed a trail for steady progress. That’s his recipe for potential maximization.
“I just tried to prepare myself to come back and contribute again,” Waller said. “I didn’t really look as far as how big my role would be. But if my work was there and I was staying clean and being consistent in what I was doing, that my role would increase at some point.”
Staying clean was a necessary element to Waller’s progress, the bedrock of all the good that’s coming from him these days. That allows him to avoid previous pratfalls and be on the right track to prepare for his 2019 role, one that could truly launch his career.
“That gives me a place to feel good about myself and respect myself when I look in the mirror because, before, I couldn’t really do that,” Waller said. “Those kinds of things translate to the field where you know you’re kind of hesitant out there. You may think, oh I don’t know, you’re not too sure of yourself.
“But now I wake up and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing in my life and representing my family in a positive way. I feel like that goes a long way into me taking on a heavier load and having confidence in myself to carry it out.”
Confidence is warranted after an excellent offseason. He’s physically stronger and was as impressive as anyone not named Antonio Brown in OTAs and minicamp work. He’s proving a reliable receiver capable of moving around the formation like Cook did last year, searching for a mismatch. He’s too big for cornerbacks at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, and too fast for linebackers and even some safeties.
Adding him to a receiving arsenal that includes Brown and Tyrell Williams could prove tough to defend. Raiders defensive backs have learned that the hard way this spring, proving optimism that Waller will thrive in 2019. He showed flashes after joining the Raiders last year, with a few big plays to his credit.
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Gruden isn’t ready to anoint Waller just yet, but he sees great potential in someone stolen from a practice squad.
“When you put the pads on three, four, five days in a row up in Napa I think that will be a better indication,” Gruden said. “He’s got a lot to prove. He’s a young player who is a converted wide receiver; don’t forget that. He’s not been brought up as a tight end, but he has made a lot of progress.”
Gruden has given Waller great support bringing him to the Raiders and providing a golden opportunity to finally thrive as an NFL player. He has received such support before and wasted it. He doesn’t plan on repeating that pattern this time around.
“The thing with me is…I feel like people have always had faith in me, but it was like I didn’t really have faith in myself,” Waller said. “So it’s part of doing my part, doing my half because a lot of coaches have stuck their neck out for me and what I’ve given them in return isn’t what they deserve or what the team deserved. For Coach Gruden to say that, I feel like I’m at a place in my life where I can build off of that and make the most of my abilities and what God gave me. That’s just what I plan on doing.”