There were great hopes for Darren Waller this season, but no guarantees.
The 27-year-old tight end had just 18 catches in his first three NFL seasons, yet was taking over the starting role following the departure in free agency of Jared Cook, the Raiders’ top receiver in 2018.
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden called Waller “one of our most impressive players” in the offseason but cautioned that he had “some big shoes to fill.”
Then, when Waller kept showing his all-around abilities in training camp and the exhibition season – with good hands, fine speed and a great work ethic -- both teammates and coaches predicted Waller would be a breakout star in 2019.
It turns out those projections were on target.
Waller, with still two games left in this regular season, was selected a Pro Bowl alternate Tuesday after making 80 catches for 1,001 yards and three touchdowns in his first season as a starter in the NFL. He’s averaged 12.5 yards per catch and has caught 77.7 percent of the throws targeting him.
The only question is, why wasn’t Waller selected to the team outright, rather than being made an alternate?
Waller ranks second in the NFL among tight ends in receiving yards and yards after the catch (461), and his catch total is No. 3. He’s had four 100-yard games and is just the second Raiders tight end to have 80 or more catches and 1,000 or more yards in a season. Todd Christensen did it three times (1983, 1984 and 1986).
It’s possible, too, that with a couple of monster games to close out this year, Waller could top Christensen’s top totals of 95 catches (1986) and 1,247 yards (1983).
The tight ends selected over Waller to the AFC Pro Bowl team were Travis Kelce of Kansas City and Mark Andrews of Baltimore. The five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro Kelce is having yet another terrific season, with 86 catches for 1,131 yards and four TDs, but Andrews has been less productive, with 58 receptions for 759 yards (although he has eight TDs).
Wrote Marcus Johnson of RaidersWire, after the teams were announced: “Waller is the biggest snub of maybe the whole Pro Bowl selection process.”
Waller and the 6-8 Raiders – who have a very slim chance of making the playoffs – take on the Chargers in Los Angeles Sunday. Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m.