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Las Vegas Raiders Against Kansas City Chiefs At Allegiant Stadium

Christopher DeVargas

Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller (83) makes a run during a play in the first half of their game at Allegiant Stadium Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020.

Some skepticism regarding Darren Waller may have been warranted entering this season, at least considering the lengths the Raiders went to hype their tight end after a breakout season.

Quarterback Derek Carr probably caused some eyerolls when he insisted Waller was one of the best players in the NFL, just as some curled lips likely followed coach Jon Gruden saying he wouldn’t trade Waller for anyone.

The ultimate recoiling has proven to be reserved for those doubters, however, as Waller has proven that his terrific season from a year ago was no fluke. The 28-year-old has been even better this year, standing out as one of the primary reasons why the Raiders control their own playoff destiny going into a Week 14 matchup with the Indianapolis Colts at 1:05 p.m. Sunday afternoon.

“He’s arguably our most valuable player on offense,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said this week.

Waller certainly was the Raiders’ most valuable offensive player last week against the Jets, as he rewrote portions of the team’s record book with 13 receptions for 200 yards and two touchdowns. It was the most prolific tight end performance in Raiders’ history, for starters, while also tying Waller with Tim Brown with his third game of at least 12 receptions.

Gruden described Waller’s day as “astonishing” and Carr said he requested more play calls where the tight end was the first read because he was so clearly in the zone.

“Thirteen balls for 200 yards as a tight end, that’s insane,” Carr said this week. “Then on the last play of the game we ask him to pass protect for like four seconds so we can launch a go-ball. The dude is unbelievable. He gets the credit because the fantasy stat people love him, but especially on stuff like that, he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for what he can do in the run and pass game protection-wise. He’s the complete package. I think he’s the best in the league.”

As Carr alluded to, Waller’s statistics have helped to raise his profile. He’s second in the league among tight ends, behind the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, in receptions (77), receiving yards (742) and standard fantasy points (114).

With seven touchdowns, he’s already more than doubled last year’s total of three scores. He’s on pace to break last year’s mark of 90 receptions, although falling short of his 1,145 yards.  

Waller believes where he’s really made a difference is as a blocker, though. Originally drafted as a wide receiver out of Georgia Tech five years ago, Waller’s blocking has remained a work in progress despite being moved to tight end by the Baltimore Ravens in 2016.

Even last year, Waller said there were certain run-heavy packages in the Raiders’ offense where he would come off the field. He doesn’t ever have to come off the field now.

“Last year, I was getting the ball a lot and it was easy to stay in the game but when the ball gets balanced out and it’s spread out with targets, you’ve got to find other ways to stay in the game,” Waller said. “That’s taking pride in the way you’re clearing out an area for someone else, how you’re blocking for someone else. I’ve definitely grown just in my focus for the game. Last year I would be doing well but my mind would wander but this year I feel like I’m locked in at all times.”

Mental focus is something Waller says he’s worked on, with Carr serving as a mentor in the regard. A recovering addict who faced multiple substance-abuse suspensions with Georgia Tech and the Ravens, Waller arrived to the Raiders less than a year after getting sober in 2018.

Because of his reputation for being “always in trouble,” Waller wanted to quietly go about his business with the Raiders in the background. 

Carr wouldn’t allow it. He forced Waller to talk about what he saw on the field and engage with him on different plays. Waller said he eventually got comfortable with it, realizing his voice was “valued” and that talking through things made him a better player.

“It’s been an exhausting journey,” Waller said. “I feel like any NFL player would say it’s been exhausting to get here.  You add off-the-field stuff onto your plate trying to get back and that adds more and brings more energy, so it takes a lot to do it, but I see it as a blessing as well. I don’t see as a burden.”   

Waller might be hard-pressed to ever top his career day that came against the Jets, especially this week facing the Colts. Indianapolis rates fourth in the NFL in defending tight ends by Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings.

But Las Vegas isn’t worried. Not only has Waller demonstrated that his value stretches beyond being a receiving option, but he’s also now used to making plays despite defenses scheming directly to slow him down.

Gruden said most opponents have “a great plan” against Waller; it just doesn’t usually work. The Raiders, meanwhile, will continue to employ their own plan with a player they believed was a star all along.

“We’re looking to get Waller the ball as much as possible because he’s a great player,” Gruden said.

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at

Article written by #LasVegasSun