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Raiders look to prepare TE Darren Waller for starter role

Updated May 31, 2019 - 9:00 am

ALAMEDA, Calif. — Since mid-March, the Raiders have seriously explored adding an offensive starter at three positions.

They addressed the first in late April, drafting Alabama running back Josh Jacobs with the No. 24 overall pick. They worked toward the second Tuesday when signing Richie Incognito to compete with Denzelle Good at left guard.

That leaves the third.

Each day, Darren Waller works to solidify his claim as the starting tight end. There is excitement at Raiders headquarters about the former Georgia Tech wide receiver, whose combination of size and speed has stoked imagination to his playmaking potential. There is also the fact he’s fairly inexperienced, and inline blocking is not a strong suit.

Here in late May, few external alternatives exist.

Any NFL team with a need at starting tight end is monitoring Kyle Rudolph’s situation with the Minnesota Vikings, and the Raiders surely are no different. He’s been the subject of trade speculation while entering the final season of a five-year, $36.5 million contract. The Vikings drafted Alabama tight end Irv Smith Jr. in the second round.

But Rudolph carries a $7.275 million salary for 2019. Two months ago, cash resources restricted the Raiders’ activity in the middle waves of free agency, having already invested significant capital on such positions as wide receiver and offensive tackle.

This restriction hinders any move for Rudolph.

Meanwhile, a barren landscape exists in free agency. The team, from which Jared Cook departed when signing with the New Orleans Saints, added Luke Willson in late March and took a flier on Erik Swoope last week.

The team drafted former LSU tight end Foster Moreau in the fourth round. Along with Waller, it also returns Derek Carrier, a versatile veteran, and Paul Butler, a practice-squad member for most of 2018 who quietly has developed and shown promise.

The Raiders’ best course of action is to develop their current group and see.

Waller is receiving heavy run with the first-team unit during organized team activities. On Tuesday, a catch on a deep pass that quarterback Derek Carr threaded through traffic was the highlight to a 7-on-7 period.

“We think he’s one of those players at the tight end position that has an elite set of skills,” offensive coordinator Greg Olson said of Waller, who is 6 feet, 6 inches and 255 pounds. “He’s extremely fast for his size. For a player at his weight to run the way he runs, again, it’s extremely impressive. And he’s shown the ball skills that we’re looking for. He’s a former wide receiver that has grown into a tight end.

“He’s a very willing blocker. He’s tough. And again, elite speed. I think we’re real fortunate. By not having Jared Cook here, I think it’s really going to expedite his growth. We’re giving him a lot right now. Although Jared had big shoes to fill there, we think he’s a guy who can step in and do the job for us.”

Waller’s development as an inline blocker is worth monitoring in the coming months.

The more multiple the Raiders can be out of their “11” personnel grouping — one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers — the more dynamic they can be. Waller, 26, logged 42 offensive snaps last season over the final four games. He blocked on only 11 of them, according to Pro Football Focus.

The Raiders signed him in November off the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad.

“He wants to see himself improve (as a blocker) as well,” Olson said. “That’s the refreshing part about Darren Waller. … I think he’s a really prideful person, a very competitive player. He’s going to scrap and fight and do all he can to try to get the job done or try to do what we’re going to ask of him in terms of the blocking part of the position.

“He’s not a guy who’s coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a former wide receiver. I don’t block. That’s not what I do. I’m a route runner, coach.’ He hasn’t taken that approach at all. He really wants to be a complete tight end. Although he’s not a finished product right now, he’s working hard to get there.”

Contact reporter Michael Gehlken at mgehlken@reviewjournal.com. Follow @GehlkenNFL on Twitter.

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