ALAMEDA (AP) — The knock on Darren Waller for most of his brief NFL career has been that his team couldn’t count on him.
An injury cut short his first season and two suspensions limited his availability the next two seasons. Given a second chance by the Oakland Raiders, Waller is making sure not to squander the opportunity.
“When it comes my way, make something happen,” Waller said Wednesday. “Just be consistent. Don’t be erratic. Most of my career to this point has been erratic. It’s been like, ‘OK, can we rely on him.’ I’ve done it for three weeks but can I do it again another week.”
Waller has made a lot happen so far, catching seven passes in the opener followed by six the following week and then grabbing 13 for 134 yards in a loss at Minnesota last Sunday — finishing one shy of matching the team record for catches in a game held by Hall of Famer Tim Brown and Brandon Myers.
His 26 catches surpass the 18 he had in 22 career games coming into the season and are one shy of Antonio Gates’ 2007 mark for the most ever by a tight end in the first three weeks of a season.
“You don’t want to ever get ahead of it, but we think he’s very special,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “Obviously the production is now showing up. What he doesn’t get enough credit for is he’ll one play get a reverse speed play, then the next play he’s blocking (Minnesota defensive end Danielle) Hunter in pass protection, then the next he’s running a slant on Trae Waynes. You don’t find those guys. They’re not around. The fact that we have one of those is pretty awesome.”
Waller has seemingly come out of nowhere to become Oakland’s most dangerous offensive player the first three weeks. He caught just 51 passes in three college seasons as a wide receiver in Georgia Tech’s option offense. He was then drafted in the sixth round by Baltimore in 2015 but had little impact with the Ravens as he dealt with substance abuse problems that he detailed on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this summer.
Waller said he was “getting high like literally every day” during training camp in 2016 when he described himself as a “vegetable.” He said he used opiates, Xanax and cocaine.
Waller was suspended the first four games that season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. He violated it again the following year and was suspended for the entire 2017 season, leading him to finally attend rehab sessions. He said this summer that he has celebrated his two-year anniversary of being clean.
Waller was reinstated in August 2018 and spent most of the season on the Ravens practice squad before being signed by the Raiders on Nov. 27. He had six catches for 75 yards over the final four games in 2018 but showed the Raiders enough for them to let Jared Cook leave in free agency and make Waller their No. 1 receiving tight end.
“They told me that I was going to get the opportunity,” Waller said. “As soon as you hear that, after all of the things that I’ve been through, I was like, I get one opportunity, that’s all I need.”
Waller has improved as a blocker this season but is at his most dangerous when he is detached as a receiver in the slot or out wide and can use his athleticism to exploit bigger defenders and size to take advantage of smaller ones. He has made 15 of his 26 catches when detached from the line at the start of the play.
That ability has allowed the Raiders to utilize two tight end formations more often this season to great effect. Oakland has more than doubled its use of one-back, two tight end groupings so far this season, gaining more than 1 yard more per play than in all other alignments.
“Our tight ends can block, so if we get a nickel defense, we feel like we can run the football,” coach Jon Gruden said. “And if they come out in the base defense, we think our guys are versatile enough to be functional and do a lot of things in the passing game. So, that’s a really good personnel grouping for us, one we are going to continue to probe and utilize.”
NOTES: The Raiders promoted LB Justin Phillips from the practice squad and released WR Ryan Grant, who started the first two games. ... Oakland also signed LB Dakota Allen off the Rams practice squad and placed LB Marquel Lee on IR. ... The Raiders signed LB Quentin Poling to the practice squad.