It’s been two years since Darren Waller hauled in a pass, and a lot has changed since then for the now 26-year-old tight end.
From 2015 to 2018, Waller called Baltimore home, playing in 18 games during his time with the Ravens, but he saw limited time on the field. The former Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket — like any college player — wrestled with the idea of whether or not he was cut out for life in the NFL.
Over the last two seasons, Waller has learned a great deal about himself. He hasn’t been a part of the Oakland Raiders for more than two weeks, and he’s confident this is an opportunity where he can be a piece of something bigger than himself.
“It was a lot, it was a lot of emotions, I guess,” Waller shared when asked what it was like being signed to the Raiders active roster. “I didn’t know if I would ever play in a game again, or be on an active roster again, so that was extremely overwhelming with gratitude, and things like that. Making the transition over to the West [Coast] was kind of rough physically, getting adjusted. Mentally it’s been a lot just trying to consume the playbook in two different phases, so it’s been a lot, but it’s definitely what I want to be doing, and it’s rewarding. I’m just grateful to be a part of the organization.”
Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, Waller saw limited reps, but he made the most of his time on the field, and even contributed to the Raiders lone touchdown of the afternoon. Lined up on the Bengals’ 45-yard line, Waller took off, streaking down the field. Derek Carr saw the 26 year old begin to create separation from his defender, and took a shot. Carr dropped a pretty pass to the tight end, who managed to go 44 yards, just one yard shy of the end zone.
“I’m not really trippin’ over that, I gotta add the dive to my repertoire,” he joked. “It’s been two calendar years since I’ve had the ball in my hands in a game, so just to get down there, and [we were] able to punch it in, so I’m not really trippin’ over that.”
It might’ve been his only reception of the day, but it was a big one, and he added a 21-yard rush to his final stat line as well, totaling 65 all-purpose yards. Don’t let Waller’s 6’6”, 255-pound frame deceive you; for a big man he’s quick, and isn’t timid about showing off his wheels. It’s one of the first things Carr noticed about the playmaker.
“His speed,” Carr said when asked what impressed him about Waller Sunday. “You know, Day One when he showed up it was his speed. He’s very smart, he’s able to pick up this offense, obviously those are the kind of guys that Coach Gruden likes. Good football players that are smart, can pick things up fast, and play hard, and he does all those things really well. He had a good role for us today, and obviously with the way he plays you could see that expanding. He’s a weapon for us. I’m glad that we have him, he’s really fast, and he covers ground, man. You don’t see many tight ends — besides ‘Cookie’ [Jared Cook] — taking it up the sideline the way that he did, and so running through the zone the way that he did, they tried to pass it off and he was just too fast.”
Waller’s speed clearly caught the Bengals defense by surprise — and probably a few of his teammates — but his playmaking ability is something he’s always been confident in.
“I’ve always seen myself as such [a playmaker],” Waller said postgame. “Whatever I can do to help this team, and continue to grow, as time goes on, whatever’s asked of me I’m willing to do.”
His NFL journey hasn’t been an easy one, or gone according to plan, but Waller’s career with the Silver and Black is off to a promising start. The roller coaster ride has provided him with a lot of highs and lows, and he’s grateful that’s it’s served as a teaching point in his life.
“My actions in the past portrayed selfishness, and just making everything about me,” Waller said in a moment of reflection. “To be a part of a team again, and to be a part of a great tight end room, and just be a part of an offense is just a great feeling, and I don’t want to let that slip through my fingers again. Just being out there in whatever my role is, whether it increases, decreases, stays the same, I’m all in.”