ALAMEDA, Calif. — Raiders tight end Darren Waller has a unique appreciation for the opportunity he has in football.
The Ravens made him a sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2015, but he finished that season on injured reserve. He was suspended for the first four games in 2016 for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, then was suspended for the 2017 season for violating it.
Waller has been open about his substance abuse problem in interviews and on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” In an interview with The Athletic last year, he revealed shortly after receiving his yearlong ban that he sat in his car after consuming pills he later realized were laced with the powerful drug Fentanyl that he felt as if he was going to die.
But Waller got clean after that incident. The league reinstated him in August 2018. He didn’t make the Ravens’ 53-man roster, instead settling on their practice squad.
The Raiders then called, signing the 26-year-old converted tight end to their active roster.
“When he walked in here, you could tell he was at a different place in his life,” Raiders tight end coach Frank Smith said. “He was ready to really take his game to another level, as far as his commitment and his focus and his desire to really learn to play the position.”
You would never know it now, but Waller was a wide receiver in college, which meant he had a lot to learn. Tight end is widely thought of as being one of the most difficult positions to master, given its importance in the run and pass.
“It’s very similar to having to know what quarterbacks have to know, the little components of everything,” Smith said.
Smith said Waller’s work ethic was so strong that he took to everything the Raiders were teaching. He leaned on tight end Jared Cook — the club’s leader in receiving yards last season — to learn the nuances of the position. Waller said Cook taught him plenty about changing the way he runs routes, depending on the defense.
But there’s no substitute for the time Waller put in himself to study the game, improving to the level of a starting-caliber player. Smith said he’s noticed tremendous growth in Waller’s blocking, understanding of defenses and overall football IQ.
It stems from Waller’s commitment to making himself better every day.
“I feel like just once my life shifted, as far as what I was doing, getting clean and things like that — I feel like I got in touch with my conscience more,” he said. “It was just like, I would feel bad if I didn’t go out there and give it everything I could.
“Before, it was like, I was kind of taking days for granted. Now, I don’t know how many chances I’ll have because it has been taken from me. So it’s why not play like every day could be your last? I just try to take that approach every day.”
That mentality has paid off. Waller entered the season with 18 career receptions for 178 yards and two touchdowns. Through two games in 2019, he has 13 receptions for 133 yards, ranking third in the AFC among tight ends.
More than catches
Quarterback Derek Carr said this week he’s been impressed not only with Waller’s receiving ability but also his blocking.
“I think he doesn’t get nearly enough credit — and he never will because of what he can do with the ball in his hands — but he’s an exceptional blocker, way better than most at his position,” Carr said. “And that’s saying a lot coming from a guy that came from receiver.”
Waller said he wants to be a positive force for the Raiders and the community.
“My recovery has taught me how to fill myself up every day so I’ll have something in me to give to football, to give to relationships,” Waller said. “It’s just caused me to really invest in myself and not invest in impressing other people.
“And if I’m living the life I want to live, then it’ll impress people by default.”