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Darren Waller Is Ready to Overtake Travis Kelce as NFL's Best Tight End in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2021

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 13:  Tight end Darren Waller #83 of the Las Vegas Raiders looks on after defeating the Baltimore Ravens 33-27 in overtime at Allegiant Stadium on September 13, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
Chris Unger/Getty Images

Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller has the feel of the NFL's next big thing. 

The NFL has no shortage of star players at a tight end position that continues to evolve at a faster clip than most. Guys like Travis Kelce and George Kittle are simply too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs, making them matchup nightmares for defenses—or the best of dreams for offenses. 

And Waller might be on a rocket that zips past Kelce at this stage of his career. 

Look no further than Waller's performance Monday night as his Raiders took down the Baltimore Ravens in an overtime thriller to start their season. The Derek Carr-directed offense attempted 56 passes to just 21 rushes, with Waller leading both teams in targets at an astounding 19. 

Waller turned those chances into 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown as he sliced through a game Ravens defense, doing pretty much whatever he wanted while giving teammates favorable matchups elsewhere as the Ravens dialed in on stopping him. 

This isn't an isolated incident either. ESPN's Field Yates illustrated his recent dominance: 

Field Yates @FieldYates

Darren Waller's last six games: * 10 catches, 105 yards, 1 TD * 9 catches, 117 yards, 1 TD * 5 catches, 112 yards * 9 catches, 150 yards, 1 TD * 7 catches, 75 yards * 13 catches, 200 yards, 2 TD Unstoppable.

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A former sixth-round pick, from 2015 to 2018, Waller never appeared in more than four games. He's 29 now, but between 2019 and 2020, he posted consecutive 1,100-yard seasons with 12 receiving touchdowns in total. 

After Waller's performance Monday night, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had this to say about the tight end Las Vegas claimed off Baltimore's practice squad in 2018, per Adam Hill of the Las Vegas Review Journal: "We threw it 60 times. If you throw 60 times, you'd probably target him 29. He's the best player I've ever coached, so I'm going to continue to look for him."

Granted, Gruden has a flair for the dramatic. But still, it's huge praise from someone who has coached the likes of league-altering players like Jerry Rice, Warren Sapp and countless others. 

Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Raiders' Week 2 opponents, said Waller compared more closely to his team's No. 1 wideout, Chase Claypool, than he does to any of the team's tight ends, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor. It speaks to the level of respect other teams and the NFL as a whole have for Waller. 

PFF @PFF

Most yards after the catch since 2019: 🥇 Austin Ekeler - 1,432 🥈 Alvin Kamara - 1,299 🥉 Darren Waller - 1,188 https://t.co/20sspaeJJB

During Kelce's reign at the top from 2018 to 2020, he posted a minimum of 1,229 receiving yards per season and scored 26 total receiving touchdowns. But last year was the first time Waller received the 130-plus targets Kelce has enjoyed for years.

One could argue Kelce has also had the benefit of playing with the better quarterback, play-caller and supporting cast around him in each of the last two seasons, too. Even last year, a hodgepodge of names below Waller on the receiving chart, led by Nelson Agholor, simply weren't scaring defenses the way Tyreek Hill, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Mecole Hardman do. 

If anything, sheer volume alone should catapult Waller to the top of most lists by season's end:

Andrew Erickson™ @AndrewErickson_

TE routes run in Week 1 Darren Waller - 59 (T-1st) Travis Kelce - 39 (6th) George Kittle - 16 (42nd) Kyle Shanahan come on bruh

It isn't all about the numbers either. Where Kelce gets to run free of doubles often (those mostly go to Hill) on consistent deep patterns with the league's best deep passer under center, Waller is speedier with a more versatile bag of routes. Both do major damage of course, but Waller's comes nearly independent of quarterback skill or desired schematic approach. That's not to say Kelce is schemed production by any means, but defenses have quite a bit more to worry about when lining up against the Chiefs

Consider this from over the summer from Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus: "While some tight ends need to be schemed production, Waller is fully capable of lining up out wide and beating cornerbacks as a receiver. His 2.3 yards per route run when lined up outside in 2020 were more than any other tight end with at least 75 such routes, including Kelce."

One defensive coach interviewed by ESPN's Jeremy Fowler this summer pointed this out plus the lack of talent around Waller: "Defenses knew he was the guy to stop every week, and they couldn't do it. It's not like he had talent all around him. He's the best athlete at the position, he's young, he's a capable blocker, and he can just overwhelm you in the passing game with his athleticism and speed."

Like Kelce, Waller is some of the justification teams point at when drafting a T.J. Hockenson eighth overall (2019) or making Kyle Pitts the highest-drafted tight end ever at No. 4 this year. While there might be other players like Kelce soon enough, the blend Waller represents (and what Atlanta hopes it has with Pitts) just isn't as common—and if it becomes common in the future, Waller might end up as well ahead of his time. 

For now, he'll have to settle for sitting as the league's best tight end. What he's put on film so far has defenses scrambling to stop him, yet nothing seems to work. He can go wherever he wants on the field and do whatever he wants pretty much independent of surrounding team factors. If opportunity remains the same, Waller should surpass all tight ends in production. He's still developing on an upward curve and was, after all, just another name on a practice squad as recently as 2018.  That should see him slide into the No. 1 spot as this season progresses.

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