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Very Deep Sleeper: Darren Waller (2019 Fantasy Football)

Jun 27, 2019

R.C. Fischer discusses deep sleeper candidate, Raiders tight end Darren Waller in Season 4 of his Very Deep Sleeper series for FantasyPros.

This piece is part of our article program that features quality content from experts exclusively at FantasyPros. For more insight from R.C. head to Fantasy Football Metrics.

Well, it appears to be the ‘Summer of Darren Waller.’ It seems like you can’t go a week without another Jon Gruden effusive praise comment for Waller being reported in the fantasy/football news cycle.

I’m both happy and saddened about this ‘Summer of Darren Waller.’ You see, back in Season 1 (2016) of my Very Deep Sleeper (VDS) series, here on FantasyPros, Waller was a subject of one of the very first reports. I was debating 2016 as the potential ‘Summer of Darren Waller.’ A scant four seasons later, here we are to debate it again.

A year ago, I never thought I’d write about or consider for fantasy Darren Waller ever again. My 2016 article looked at his conversion from draft pick wide receiver to tight end project by the Baltimore Ravens.

Less than two months after that Waller VDS report in 2016, he was suspended for four games for PED usage.

In 2017, he was suspended for the entire season for the same issue.

In 2018, he was among the final 53-man roster cuts by the Ravens and they placed him on the practice squad. In late 2018, this story got a reboot…a twist I never saw coming. In late November, the Oakland Raiders claimed him off the Ravens’ practice squad. Two weeks later, Oakland activated him to the main roster – and that’s where this story, this fantasy situation, really takes a turn.

We’ll get to his main roster time for Oakland in a moment. First, you need to read my original 2016 VDS report on Waller because it sets the stage for the type of prospect/talent we’re talking about here. He’s not your ordinary tight end prospect. After that, we’ll talk about his brief, but critically important to the story time with Oakland late last season and then look into the future…

From May 13, 2016…

One of the most interesting football moves of the offseason was quietly executed a few weeks ahead of the NFL Draft when the Baltimore Ravens announced that 2015 sixth-round draft pick wide receiver Darren Waller was officially being moved to tight end.

The announcement, if anyone even noticed it, was met with a general shoulder shrug from the football universe. Waller has almost no name recognition, and anyone who had their eye on Waller would have also noticed that the Ravens have been stockpiling tight ends for the upcoming apocalypse…they must sense that the post-apocalyptic world is going to be very short-supplied on tight ends. The Ravens drafted Crockett Gillmore in 2014.

They followed that by drafting Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle in 2015.

They hold out some hope that former starter Dennis Pitta can return from injury.

Just in case those four options do not pan out, the Ravens spent good money in free agency to sign veteran Ben Watson.

And…oh yeah, they announced Darren Waller is now transitioning to tight end. I’d make a joke about Waller being the sixth tight end on the Ravens’ depth chart, except most football websites have not changed his classification from WR to TE.

Normally, when a wide receiver prospect is shifted over to a ‘tight end project’, after an inconsequential rookie season, the results are not what you’d hope. There are always going to be guys like me trolling the bottom of the pond looking for deep-sleeper scenarios where a player magically goes from ignored at one position to Hall of Famer at another…and then a Disney movie is made. It all sounds good up front, but then it never really works out. However, this Waller situation has a little more promise than the usual Hail Mary positional switches. I’m not saying, ‘Hall of Fame bound,’ but there is an elevated Dynasty-Fantasy promise here.

The first reason for hope is – Darren Waller is a poor man’s Jimmy Graham, physically.

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  • Height: Graham measured 6′6.2″ at his NFL Combine, and Waller 6′6.1″
  • 40-time: Graham ran a 4.56 at his NFL Combine, Waller a 4.46
  • Bench Press: Graham 15 reps at his Pro Day, Waller 12 reps at the NFL Combine (both totals…not great)
  • Three-cone: Graham 6.90 at the NFL Combine, Waller a 7.07
  • Vertical: Graham 38.5″ at the NFL Combine, Waller 37.0″

From a physical standpoint, there are a lot of similarities between Graham and Waller – the glaring difference is that Graham produced all his numbers while 20+ pounds heavier than Waller. The Waller numbers are encouraging, exciting even if he adds 10+ pounds. Jimmy Graham’s athleticism at 260 pounds is a rarity.

Graham was a sparsely-used tight end at Miami, Florida – a basketball-to-football convert project. Waller was a sparsely used wide receiver at Georgia Tech because they run the wishbone offense and are painful to watch in the passing game.

When I scouted Darren Waller as a wide receiver for the 2015 NFL Draft, I noted the obvious physical possibilities of a move to tight end. There was also evidence that he had real receiving talent as a TE/WR hybrid projection. Despite a small hand size (9.0″), Waller displays above-average ability to catch the ball downfield and in traffic. Waller’s mediocre receiving numbers in college weren’t due to him being a flimsy wide receiver talent. His numbers are unimpressive because Georgia Tech was still running the wishbone, barely threw the ball, and threw it ineffectively when they did. It made scouting Waller for the NFL a complicated task because nothing was normal about the college offense he played in. However, when he was thrown the ball, Waller displayed an ability to ‘go get it.’

Waller joined the Baltimore Ravens in 2015, and it was instantly an uphill battle for him to make the roster. Some speculated in the training camp ‘buzz’ that he may not make the team and would likely be placed on the practice squad. The Ravens had a number of established wide receivers, as well as various, intriguing young prospects. I wasn’t sure how Waller was going to fit in among them either. Credit to Waller, he played well in the preseason and forced the Ravens to keep him on the opening-day roster in 2015. Also, credit to Waller for being active right away – he played as a special teamer starting in Week 1. After a couple of weeks into the 2015 season, Waller was actually starting to see snaps and sparse targets at wide receiver. Waller’s 2015 was then cut short after Week 7 due to a hamstring injury, in which the Ravens took the opportunity to place him on season-ending I.R. – basically protecting/redshirting him the rest of 2015.

Anyone can see that Waller has high-end tight end physical traits/athleticism…that part of the scouting equation is inarguable. For those that questioned his toughness, Waller showed intestinal fortitude in forcing his way onto the Ravens’ roster in 2015, instantly contributing on special teams and eventually working his way up to seeing time at wide receiver.

Besides wondering whether Waller can really transition to tight end in the NFL, Dynasty GMs also have to wonder whether it will ever matter on the Ravens’ depth chart – how is he going to get past all of those other, more notable tight ends? I actually think that’s where there is a hidden opportunity.

First off, there is no tight end on the Ravens’ roster who is similarly constructed or as physically gifted as Darren Waller. Dennis Pitta is all-around better than all of them, but after multiple hip surgeries, I think we can write off Pitta as never playing again, meaningfully, in the NFL.

2015 draft pick Nick Boyle has run into all kinds of trouble with performance-enhancing drugs. He’s already suspended for 10 games in 2016, after being suspended for four games in 2015. The Ravens’ other 2015 draft pick at tight end (Maxx Williams), the guy many scouts proclaimed was the best tight end prospect in the draft, has been exposed to be mediocre at best. I think Williams has signs of becoming a bust, never mattering much in the NFL. 2014 draft pick tight end Crockett Gillmore is solid, but not an explosive weapon – he’s a nice No. 2 tight end, not a game-changing feature in the pass game. I’m not overly impressed with any of the tight ends that the Ravens have drafted the past two seasons. Apparently, they aren’t either – as they signed Ben Watson in free agency this offseason.

Ben Watson is the obvious starter this year, and is a solid receiving threat, but he is more known for his blocking skills and general wisdom he brings to an offense. He is an excellent mentor for Waller, if the younger takes advantage of it. In addition, Waller could operate as a ‘pass-game only’ tight end or TE/WR hybrid in 2016, working with Ben Watson in two tight end sets. The moment people see Waller’s athleticism in the pass game in the preseason, even as a second tight end, fantasy analysts are going to be chirping about the sleeper possibilities. Ben Watson’s not going to be in the NFL forever – this may even be his last season.

As crowded as the Ravens’ tight end depth chart looks, and as far-fetched as most WR-to-TE conversions usually are – I actually think this Darren Waller situation has more intrigue than most of these conversion stories…much more intriguing than similar WR-to-TE conversion discussions taking place with undrafted rookies Devon Cajuste (49ers) and Marquez North (LA Rams). Waller may be more of a 2017+ story, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he were revealed as a pass-game WR/TE hybrid weapon for the Ravens’ offense this season.

If your Fantasy Football host does not change Waller to a tight end classification this season…pretend you never read this article. Dynasty owners with deep rosters – right now is the time to attack before he is switched over to tight end for the world to see.

Back to 2019…

…actually, back to 2018. Waller was activated in Week 14 last season and played a few special teams snaps. Week 15…well, everything changed.

In Week 15, Waller played more snaps at tight end and had two touches. Two touches in a game seem like no big deal, but they were a HUGE deal. You know what Waller’s first touch as a Raider was? A tight end jet sweep…for 21 yards. That one run officially made Waller the second leading rusher among all tight ends in 2018 (Evan Engram was No. 1).Tight end running plays/jet sweeps are reserved for the most athletic of tight ends – and getting those plays called for you is a great endorsement, recognition by the coaches of what you can do. Only a handful of tight ends took a jet sweep in 2018…almost none of them for more than a few yards. Waller’s first touch as a Raider was a big play jet sweep.

His other touch, a simple, short crossing pattern where Waller dragged across the line of scrimmage and caught a short pass…and then took off for 44-yards and diving but falling a yard short of a TD. Two touches, 65 yards. That’s why I’ve been excited about Waller’s tight end conversion for years…he’s a taller Evan Engram, in a sense. Highly athletic, high-end speed for a tight end.

I’m excited. You should be excited. The person who is the most excited? Jon Gruden. Check this out from last season – Gruden going over the game tape of Waller’s two big plays — YouTube link:

Week 16, Waller had two catches for eight yards. Week 17, three catches for 23 yards.

Put all this in context – Waller has been struggling to find playing time for years, and then he’s grabbed by Oakland out of the blue, and two weeks later he’s running jet sweeps and goes three games averaging 2.0 catches and 32.0 total yards per game with a near-miss TD. Jared Cook was not hurt…it was Waller’s athleticism impressing the coaches so quickly they pushed him into the rotation and gave him the touches/respect that I wish the Giants’ coaches would have given Evan Engram every week.

Jon Gruden praised Waller after seeing him for his first week joining the team. Then Gruden praised him all the rest of the 2018 season. And then Gruden has praised him all 2019 offseason, recently claiming him as their No. 1/starting tight end as well.

Jon Gruden is screaming to us his feelings on a player, and he has shown some of his beliefs by the touches he gave him last year…it’s not just idle, throwaway coach-speak. All this positive energy, and most of us are yawning. What Raiders tight end do you think is taking Waller’s job away? Gruden said it in that YouTube clip – Waller is a guy that can play as a tight end and also split out as a legit wide receiver (because he’s that athletic, and he entered the league as a drafted WR prospect). There’s no one on the Raiders’ TE depth chart as talented, or as multi-dimensional. And none of them are receiving the praise from Gruden that Waller is.

Will we listen? Will we act?

…or will we draft Delanie Walker or Greg Olsen or the extraordinarily overrated T.J. Hockenson (don’t get me started…just go watch the Mississippi State bowl game tape).

I’m acting. I’m moving Waller ahead of Hockenson and many others in my 2019 draft guide rankings (in all scoring formats). As well, I’m dropping rookie Foster Moreau’s (who I like/is underrated as a talent) dynasty rookie draft rankings for the Waller effect.

It’s time to take Jon Gruden seriously (I know that sentence seems illogical, but this time I’m with Gruden). A leap of faith.

It’s time to take current (as of this writing) No. 50+ consensus ranked tight end Darren Waller seriously for 2019.

Disregard everything you just read if Waller gets another PED suspension…

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