Raiders tight end Darren Waller hopes to improve on last season’s breakout campaign by getting off to a quick start this year.
In more ways than one.
The Raiders raised some eyebrows by signing veteran tight end Jason Witten this offseason despite Waller’s emergence as a star and the presence of talented youngster Foster Moreau.
Witten insists he has something left in the tank and perhaps of even greater importance, can help teach Waller the ways of playing tight end in the league.
Waller picked up on one such intricacy right away.
“I don’t think anybody gets off on snaps as quickly as he does,” Waller said after Friday’s training camp practice at the team facility in Henderson. “He’s usually the first one to five yards. He’ll get off quicker than the receivers the first five yards. That’s something I need to improve on because my get-off needs work for sure. I want to get off the ball like him.”
While they were not around each other in the offseason due to the restrictions in place because of the coronavirus, Waller says Wittten has “already been an outstanding help. I wish we could have been around him in person in the offseason, but I can’t ask for much more than what he’s doing for us right now.”
Witten isn’t the only offseason acquisition who can help Waller improve on last season’s success. Midway through a year in which he finished with 90 catches for 1,145 yards after entering the season as a virtual unknown, Waller started drawing a great deal of defensive attention.
He still had a couple big games down the stretch, but it was clear defenses were scheming to limit his opportunities.
Coach Jon Gruden believes an upgrade of talent an offense, particularly rookie wide receivers Henry Ruggs and Bryan Edwards, will help free up Waller.
“We have big plans for Waller,” he said. “ That’s why we brought in some other receivers to take the pressure off of him.”
Gruden, who is usually careful not to overhype his players, makes an exception for Waller.
“We think he’s a superstar,” Gruden said. “He can do it all. He can block. He can run any route. He’s got great stamina. He had a dark portion of his life there for awhile that not a lot of people come back from. I hope a lot of young people out there get the real story of Waller. You can beat addiction if you just listen to Darren Waller and how he did it. He is a great source of leadership and proof you can be great even if you’ve had some really dark, dark times.”
Waller celebrated three years sober this week. He joined the Raiders for the final four games of the 2018 season after serving a year-long suspension for violating the league’s drug policy and has flourished under Gruden, who calls him an inspiration to anyone who ever thought their situation was beyond repair.
The 27-year-old has also found calm in his new hometown despite its chaotic reputation.
“It’s awesome to get into the city,” he said. “It’s funny because most people look at Vegas as like this crazy place where it’s just mayhem at all times, but I feel at peace here already. I feel like I live in a great area. I’ve met great people out here. I’m just excited to write a new chapter.”
It won’t be easy to top the last one. Waller finished second among all tight ends in the league in both catches and yards last year, behind only Kansas City star Travis Kelce.
Kelce and San Francisco star George Kittle both signed massive contract extensions on Thursday.
Gruden puts Waller in the same category and hopes he’s ready to take on an even bigger role.
“Get yourself physically ready for the grind because we’re going to use you,” Gruden said of what he told Waller. “He never comes off the field and some of the things we ask him to do for us are astonishing if you ask me. He’s a big part of every package we have.”
Waller’s focus is on finetuning the details.
“You just keep building on the fundamentals and doing the simple things, not getting too worried about making huge plays all the time or doing spectacular things,” he said “Last offseason, the way I got better was focusing on the simple things and letting those things stack and turn into consistency.”
That’s a good start.