Darren Waller deserves to be a top candidate for Comeback Player of the Year — no debate.
The Las Vegas Raiders tight end had one of the best stories this season and paired it with an impressive level of play. Of all the players considered for the award — quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Jimmy Garoppolo are the big ones — none overcame more adversity than Waller.
For those who aren't familiar with his story, Waller used to be a member of the Baltimore Ravens, and during his two seasons with the team (2015 - 2016) he battled serious drug addiction. Waller recounted his journey from drug addiction, to rehab, to the Raiders numerous times this season, and it captivated NFL fans and pundits across the country.
"You love seeing the story about Darren," former Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said. "We all have a lot of respect for guys who have overcome things, right? That are battle tested and he was. He handled adversity, he got through it, and past it, and now look what he's doing. That takes a lot of mental capacity, a lot of mental toughness to overcome those things, and continue to overcome it, so to see the year he has had and the impact he makes offensively, as a guy with his ability, his stature, the way he can catch the football, it's exciting to watch."
To Gradkowski's point, Head Coach Jon Gruden praised Waller's mental toughness repeatedly throughout the year and loved the way he impacted the offense. To this day I'm not sure what Coach Gruden saw in Waller to sign him from the Ravens' practice squad midway through the 2018 season, but then again, he is an offensive mastermind. I'd love to listen to Gruden explain what he envisioned the first time he saw No. 83 play and how he knew he could help him tap his potential.
If you followed along with the NFL, chances are you heard Waller's story this year and were impressed with his play on the gridiron. At 6'6" and 255 pounds, Waller boasts a long and rangy frame that allows him to be physical, while making athletic plays. It's rare nowadays to see a tight end capable of taking on the duties of a wide receiver, but that's exactly what Waller does, and he's great at it. The physical tight end finished his breakout in 2019 with 90 receptions, 1,145 yards, and three touchdowns, which caught the attention of arguably the best tight end in NFL history.
"I'm so happy for that guy," said Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. "I remember watching him over the last couple years, he's athletic. You see guys that are athletic, and you see they got good hands, but for whatever reason it doesn't work out, and sometimes a lot of that is situational — you have to have the right coach and the right offense. He showed a lot this year, that he's able to go out there and compete with some of the best, and the future is bright for him."
It's not easy to "wow" someone like Tony Gonzalez, but he also said he'll be watching to see how Waller follows his big year. Now that defenses know he can hurt them, Waller's opportunities might be limited next year.
"To me, it's only going to get better from here. Now that he has that confidence — I remember my first year I had 76 catches, my breakout year in my third year — once you have that breakout year you'll see who you are because now everyone knows who you are and people know you're coming," Gonzalez explained. "They're going to prepare for you differently than they did before, but now you got to take it to another level, so I'm looking forward to seeing how he takes it to that next level next year."
In my opinion, Waller has done more than enough to earn the title of Comeback Player of the Year, but even if he doesn't, his season won't be judged by that because what he was able to overcome was more important; however, it is nice to see that people took notice.