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Raiders TE Darren Waller hopes face in the mirror is a new man

Updated June 11, 2019 - 6:34 pm

ALAMEDA, Calif. — He is defined by a mirror now, and the face staring back, by the idea that moments earlier, he had opened his eyes to a clean existence.

Trying to see any further down life’s path is pointless.

“It gives me a chance to feel good about myself and respect myself,” Darren Waller said. “I wake up now and I’m doing what I’m supposed to in life, representing my family in a positive way.

“All I have is today. I’m not promised other days.”

You have to believe it’s always there, the temptation to again swerve in an ill-advised direction, Waller an NFL player twice suspended by the league for substance abuse issues, twice suspended as a player at Georgia Tech for a similar reason, on numerous occasions claiming he had changed his lifestyle and then again testing positive for marijuana.

The Raiders believe lessons have been learned and would have the former wide receiver slotted as their No. 1 tight end should the season begin today, handing him the first opportunity to replace a gaping hole left by Jared Cook.

Cook produced as much as anyone on a 4-12 team last season, offering career highs in catches (68), yards (896 yards) and touchdown receptions (6), numbers undoubtedly aided by a wide receiver corps beset by injury and yet consistently impressive all the same.

But he found another home in the offseason by signing a two-year deal with New Orleans, opening a spot that Waller is confident at which he can both take and succeed.

He was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season while with the Ravens — who drafted him in the sixth round five years ago — and then for all of 2017. The Raiders signed him off Baltimore’s practice squad last November and Waller over four games totaled six receptions for 75 yards.

Mandatory mini-camp is underway, a final formal gathering of Jon Gruden’s second Raiders team since his return as head coach before training camp begins in late July. The idea over the next few days is to get important work done and remain healthy, and probably not in that order.

Names might be new at wide receiver, but the likes of Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams at least offer the impression that opposing defensive coordinators will make those on the outside a weekly priority on which to focus.

Which means Waller, listed at 6-foot-6-inches, 255 pounds and yet looking on the light side of such weight, should receive more than his share of attention from quarterback Derek Carr.

“Since (Waller) has been here, he has been one of our most impressive players,” Gruden said. “He has some big shoes to fill (with Cook’s departure) and he knows it. But he’s versatile and he’s smart and he’s fast and he wants to do good and he’s a great kid.

“He’s handling (the pressure) well. Obviously, when we put the pads on at training camp, that will give us a better indication. He has a lot to prove, but he has also made a lot of progress.”

‘Hard Knocks’ life

Waller would tell you that has occurred both on and off the field, and a few lockers down from him is oft-troubled offensive lineman Richie Incognito, another player with past transgressions the Raiders are offering opportunity. They are also doing so with linebacker Vontaze Burfict and his over $4.5 million in career fines and forfeited pay.

It’s all stuff made for television, which we learned Tuesday will include the Raiders being featured on this year’s HBO edition of “Hard Knocks,” the league and network choosing to follow Gruden’s team prior to a final season in Oakland instead of a first in Las Vegas.

And yet no matter how often or not the cameras focus on Waller and his past during training camp, he will feel supported.

“People have always had faith in me, but I haven’t had faith in myself,” he said. “Lots of coaches have stuck their neck out for me, but what I have given in return isn’t what they or the team deserved. I need to make the most out of my abilities and with what God gave me. That’s what I plan on doing.

“The No. 1 thing, of course, is staying clean.”

It begins with a mirror each morning, and the face staring back.

More Raiders: Follow at reviewjournal.com/Raiders and @NFLinVegas on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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