Going Deep: The ABC’s of Drafting Darren Waller

 

Quick question, who were the top seven receiving options in Oakland last season?  Go ahead and think about it for a minute, I’ve got time  Can you name four players that are on that list?  Anybody?  Bueller?  OK, I’ll tell you numbers seven through two.  The number one will be revealed a little later.  Here are the splits for those six players and their current situation.

 

  • Marcell Ateman – 31 targets, 15 receptions, 154 yards, 1 TD (still with Oakland)
  • Martavis Bryant – 27 targets, 19 receptions, 266 yards (whereabouts unknown)
  • Amari Cooper – 31 targets, 22 receptions, 280 yards, 1 TD (Dallas Cowboys)
  • Seth Roberts – 64 targets, 45 receptions, 494 yards, 2 TDs (Baltimore Ravens)
  • Jalen Richard – 81 targets, 68 receptions, 607 yards (still with Oakland)
  • Jordy Nelson – 88 targets, 63 receptions, 739 yards, 3 TDs (retired)

 

That is 210 targets, 149 receptions, 1,779 yards, and 6 TDs (so far…foreshadowing!) that are no longer in the Black Hole.  Now, Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, and JJ Nelson will soak up a good portion of those vacated targets, but TE Darren Waller might also be in the mix.  Now I present to you the most basic reasons why Waller should be on your fantasy radar.

 

A is for “Athleticism”

 

Waller was invited to the 2015 NFL Combine after three seasons at Georgia Tech.  The same Georgia Tech that was notorious for running a “flexbone” offense under former HC Paul Johnson.  This offense was heavily predicated on running the ball with multiple rushing options on each play.  From 2012-2014, when Waller played, Georgia Tech attempted approximately 14 passes per game compared to 56 rushes.  So, when we look at Waller’s senior-season numbers from college, his stat line of 26 catches, 442 yards, and 6 TDs is mighty impressive.  Waller is one of only 11 WRs to ever be drafted out of Georgia Tech.

Below are the results from Waller’s performance at the 2015 NFL Combine.  The numbers in parentheses indicate where Waller ranks among all the TEs that have participated in the NFL Combine from 2000 through 2019. (Data courtesy of Pro Football Reference) NOTE: Waller tested as a WR, so he won’t show up in the list of results if you follow the link.

 

Height Weight 40-Yard Dash Vertical Jump Broad Jump Bench Press Reps 3-Cone Drill Shuttle
6′ 6″ 255 lbs 4.46 seconds (5) 37.0 inches (20) 125 inches (13) 12 (last) 7.07 seconds (43) 4.25 seconds (22)

 

If you’d like to watch Waller’s combine performance, you can find it at this link.

Here is a quick overview of what the NFL Combine drills are designed to measure.

  • 40-yard dash – Measures speed and acceleration
  • Vertical Jump – Measures lower-body strength and leaping ability
  • Broad Jump – Measures lower-body strength and explosion
  • Bench Press – Measures strength and endurance
  • 3-Cone Drill – Measures agility and high-speed change of direction
  • Shuttle – Measures acceleration, lateral quickness, short-area explosiveness, and ability to stop on a dime

As you can see, Waller tested quite favorably to TEs of both the past and present.  Now, I understand NFL Combine results are not indicative of NFL success, but it at least gives us a frame of reference for how Waller compares to his peers.  The closest current comparison to Waller’s combine numbers is Evan Engram.

 

Height Weight 40-Yard Dash Vertical Jump Broad Jump Bench Press Reps 3-Cone Drill Shuttle
6′ 3″ 240 lbs 4.43 seconds 36.0 inches 125 inches 19 6.92 seconds 4.23 seconds

 

I’m not going to try and tell you Waller will have a top-five fantasy TE season, but I will tell you the athleticism sure seems to be there for him to succeed.  There is not much video on him at the NFL level, but here is an example of his athleticism in action.

 

 

B is for “Bargain”

 

Value is a term thrown around a lot in fantasy football circles.  Generally, it’s used during this time of the year when you can acquire a player, via draft or auction, at a place or price that is lower than the cost to acquire the same player at the end of the season.  For example, Phillip Lindsay was an incredible value last season because he was a late-round or undrafted player that went on to have an RB1 season.  It’s these types of players that can win a league for you because the return they provide far outweighs the cost to acquire them.

Fantasy Pros currently lists Waller as the 26th TE being drafted on average at pick number 230 in PPR leagues.  For context, in a 12-team league that would be the second pick of the 20th round.  He’s probably not even being drafted in the majority of leagues!  The most legitimate threat for playing time appears to be fourth-round rookie Foster Moreau out of LSU.  According to Oakland’s GM Mike Mayock, this is what Moreau brings to the table.

“What we think we found is a tight end who can put his hand in the dirt and block, number one. Number two, we think he’s a bit better athletically than most people think, and number three, we think he’s a great complement to Waller, who you just talked about.”

From that quote, it sure sounds like Moreau is going to primarily be a blocker and Waller will be the primary receiving TE.

The only other options the Raiders have at TE before preseason cuts have started are Derek Carrier, Luke Willson, Paul Butler, and Brandon Barnes.  Carrier is on his fifth team since entering the league in 2011 and doesn’t present any significant threat to Waller’s playing time.  Willson has had success in the past and seems the most likely to usurp Waller if needed.  Waller is going to be given the first chance to succeed in his new role and is free in leagues right now.  There is no downside to drafting Waller with your last pick or adding him as a free agent before the start of the season and the potential upside is high.  Waller is the definition of a bargain.

 

C is for “Cook” and “Carr”

 

It’s time for the anticipation to end!  The number one receiving option for the Oakland Raiders last season was Jared Cook.  Cook had a career year, registering 68 receptions on 101 targets for 896 yards and six TDs and finishing as fantasy TE5.

Cook has a very similar athletic profile to Waller.  Waller is slightly taller, but Cook had the better Vertical Jump at the NFL Combine (41 inches).  Cook has been viewed as one of the more athletic TEs since entering the NFL in 2009 and signed with the New Orleans Saints during free agency.  Taking into account his new team and his 2018 production, Cook is being considered a TE1 coming off draft boards as the eighth TE drafted at #73 overall.

One reason Cook had such a large target share was the lack of receiving options at WR.  Another reason two of Oakland’s top targeted players were TE Cook and RB Richard is the lack of a quality offensive line.  We discussed how the Raiders addressed the receiving corps, but the concerns around the offensive line still exist.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Raiders offensive line at 28th in the NFL following the 2018 season.  Oakland let G Kelechi Osemele go after a surprising drop in production after two consecutive Pro Bowl nods, turning to Richie Incognito in 2019.  The Raiders also made Trent Brown the highest-paid tackle in the NFL to help shore up the right side of the line after being forced to start rookie Brandon Parker last season following the injury to Donald Penn.

Despite the new pieces, PFF still doesn’t have faith in the starting five to improve much.  Oakland is again ranked near the bottom of the NFL, landing at #26 in their 2019 preview article.  Generally, when a team’s offensive line is unable to provide enough time for routes to develop downfield, the QB defers to a short pass to the RB or TE.  This brings us to our second “C”, Oakland’s QB Derek Carr.

Since becoming Oakland’s starting QB as a rookie in 2014, Carr has put up respectable statistics, but the wins have failed to follow.  Despite the lack of success on the scoreboard, Oakland will turn to Carr for at least one more season in 2019.  Let’s look at the correlation between Carr and his starting TEs since 2014.

 

Year Player(s) Targets (% of total targets) Red Zone Targets (% of total RZ Targets)
2014 Mychal Rivera 100 (16.31%) 9 (18.37%)
2015 Mychal Rivera & Clive Walford  96 (15.66%) 12 (20.0%)
2016 Mychal Rivera & Clive Walford 78 (12.52%) 14 (13.47%)
2017 Jared Cook 91 (15.77%) 11 (18.97%)
2018 Jared Cook 101 (19.61%) 16 (29.63%)

 

Based on the historical context, Waller should expect to command 18-20% of Carr’s red zone opportunities.  Carr has averaged 55-60 red zone attempts during his career, so 10-15 red zone targets for Waller seems like a safe projection.  Approximately 33% of Carr’s red zone targets result in TDs, so 3-5 TDs from these high-value targets would fall in line with career averages.

Additionally, we can safely project 15-16% of Carr’s total passes to be targeted towards his starting TE.  For his career, Carr averages 560 passes per season.  Removing Carr’s estimated 60 red zone attempts, that leaves 500 targets.   Waller should be expected to garner 75-80 of those targets outside the red zone in 2019.  Assuming a conservative estimate of a 65% completion rate, that would leave Waller with 49-52 receptions.  Waller has a very limited sample size, but his career yards per reception is right at 10, so a 500-yard season seems very reachable.  An additional 2-4 TDs also seems likely.

If past history is any indicator, Waller looks like a 50-55 reception guy with 450-550 yards and 5-9 TDs.  Using the low end of those projections, that would give Waller 125 PPR points which would have ranked #14 last season.  Using the median (52/500/7) would generate 144 PPR points, good for #9 last season.

Drafting Waller with your final pick gives you tantalizing upside with no risk.  Taking him seems as easy as A-B-C.

 

(Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire)

Bryan Sweet

Born in Michigan, but living in Tennessee. Long-suffering Lions fan. My first-ever NFL game was the Music City Miracle. Husband, father, banker, writer for QB List. Bitten by the fantasy bug in 1993 and been infected ever since. Go Blue!

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