Waller hoping for encore to breakout season with Raiders

NFL

HENDERSON, Nev. (AP)Darren Waller has become many things since joining the Raiders organization.

A well-rounded tight end, a leader on and off the field, an inspiration to his teammates and fans, and now, a bargain.

When Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle signed big contract extensions last week, Las Vegas was elated with the four-year, $29.8 million contract they have with Waller.

”We think he’s a superstar,” coach Jon Gruden said. ”He never comes off the field and some of the things we ask him to do are astonishing. He’s a big part of every package that we have. We think he’s a great tight end.

”I know two tight ends got paid a lot of money (Thursday), we’re happy to have our guy. He can do it all. He can block. He can run any route. He’s got great stamina.”

He also has a full season under his belt, finally.

After missing the first four games of the 2016 season for violating the substance-abuse policy, and then being suspended for one year without pay as a repeat offender in 2017, Waller was signed by the Raiders off the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad in late 2018 and started all 16 games in 2019.

He had a breakout season for the Raiders, catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards – both ranking top 15 in the league.

And by keeping focused on the basics, Waller is pushing himself for an even bigger 2020.

”Last offseason, I feel like I got a lot better just by focusing on simple things, letting those things stack and turn into consistency,” said Waller, who had three TDs last season. ”So now it’s just like the smallest things … the small details. I can get the big picture things, but my mind can stray from the small details at times so it’s just staying on them at times.”

That mentality has carried over away from the football field. Waller just celebrated three years of being sober, and the maturation level for the 27-year-old is what has impressed Gruden the most.

”He had a dark portion of his life there for a while that not a lot of people come back from,” Gruden said. ”And I hope a lot young people out there get the real story behind Waller. You can beat addiction if you just listen to Darren Waller and how he did it. He is a great source of, I think, leadership and proof that you can be great even though you’ve had some really dark times.”

Waller reflected when he wasn’t worth looking up to, or didn’t provide any inspiration, in particular to his younger fans. Now, in what he feels is a blend of new beginnings – sobriety, his career with the Raiders, the team moving to Las Vegas – the sky’s the limit for a do-it-all tight end who survived rock bottom.

”I can really step into my calling and write my own story and be of service to other people in the process and inspire people,” Waller said. ”Me being clean is me breaking generational curses in my family. It’s changing what’s cool among young people. I know a lot of people are looking to me for inspiration so that gives me extra energy.”

Adding to his inspiration both on and off the field has been the addition of tight end Jason Witten. The 38-year-old veteran has seemingly taken Waller under his wing and is already lending an influence. Such as Sunday during practice, when different groups converged during special teams drills.

Alone on a far corner of the practice field, Witten and Waller met for a five-minute briefing, mentor and mentee learning from one another.

”There is no limit to what he can accomplish in this league,” Witten said. ”He’s big, he’s long, he’s athletic, he’s extremely fast, but he’s just got great feel and understanding. You see the way he studies it and what he wants out of this year and his career, and I think he’s going to be a star. He’s already a star, but I don’t think there is a limit to what he can achieve in this league at the tight end position.”

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