Through the first three active seasons of his NFL career, Darren Waller had 18 catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns.
The tight end from Georgia Tech struggled with injuries and substance-abuse issues and played limited roles for the Ravens for two seasons before coming to Oakland in 2018.
Now, Waller is among the NFL’s best tight ends.
Through seven games for the Raiders, Waller has career highs in catches (46), yards (496) and touchdowns (3). When the Raiders take on the visiting Detroit Lions Sunday – one of the NFL’s worst defensive teams – he again could be targeted early and often. Waller already has had two games with more than 100 yards receiving, and he’s become Derek Carr’s top target.
Waller’s 46 catches are more than the combined totals of the next two busiest Oakland receivers, Tyrell Williams (20) and Hunter Renfrow (18). He ranks No. 2 in the NFL among tight ends in receptions, behind only Austin Hooper (52) of Atlanta.
Throughout offseason workouts and training camp, Raiders players and coaches predicted a big season for Waller, and he’s proven them correct – despite little national fanfare. His combination of speed, size and smarts make him a great receiver.
In fact, this week, Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire put Waller on his NFL All-Underrated Team.
Wrote Farrar: "Selected in the sixth round of the 2015 draft by the Ravens, Waller went through his share of substance-abuse issues, which led to several league suspensions. He’s put his life together, was signed to the Raiders’ practice squad in 2018 and 2019 has been his best season to date. … He’s particularly effective at taking quick passes from Derek Carr and blasting through enemy defenses to create yards after the catch.
"Waller leads the Raiders in receptions and receiving yards, and it’s great to see that he’s recovered his NFL opportunities after a rough patch."
Waller, in fact, ranks No. 11 in the NFL with 262 yards gained after receptions.
The Raiders recently signed Waller to a contract extension, and head coach Jon Gruden says his tight end is vital to the offense.
"Waller is not a tight end, he’s a football player," he told ESPN. "You can line him up anywhere."
The Raiders offense could have a big day Sunday. The Lions check in with the 31st-ranked total defense (giving up 420.4 yards per game) and 32nd-ranked pass defense (289.7 yards per game).
The Raiders (3-4) and Lions (3-3-1) are set to kick off at 1:05 p.m. The Raiders are listed as 2½-point favorites.