With the NFL season going into the playoffs, it’s time for the eliminated teams to evaluate their franchises and decide how the future of their teams will look. One of these eliminated teams is the Raiders who finished 8-8 and 2nd in the AFC West. But one thing’s for sure, they have one of the best tight ends in the league.
In fact, they have THE best tight end in the league right now.
Darren Waller just came off a sensational season with 107 receptions, 1,196 yards, and 9 touchdowns.
Standing at 6’6 260 pounds, Waller is the perfect combination of speed and strength. Throughout the entire season he’s shown his ability to overpower and outrace opposing linebackers and defensive backs. Being a former wide receiver at G-Tech with a 4.46 40-yard dash, it’s no wonder he blew by so many of his defenders.
He’s also repeatedly shown his big play ability. When you watch the film for the Raiders, a few times a game, Waller would catch a ball right over his defender or catch it with both hands in his face. His concentration and body control are unlike any other tight end. The only one comparable is Travis Kelce.
Kelce has been regarded as the best tight end in the league for years now. But I think that title has shifted to Darren Waller. In every aspect of being a tight end, Darren Waller is either better than or just as good as Kelce.
The only exception being strength. Kelce is pure muscle and has a slight edge in strength over Waller. Even so, Waller still bullies every type of defense thrown his way.
In terms of speed, Waller wins by a large margin. The amount of times Waller goes into motion and runs wheel routes and simply blows past defensive backs is absurd. At least once a game, Waller runs straight up the sideline on a wheel route and sticks a catch right through a defender. Often times he also lines up outside the numbers against iso coverage, runs a streak and simply beats his defender by running straight. It’s unbelievable how fast he is and how easy he makes catches look. That brings me to my next point, his route running.
With the high powered offense of the Kansas City Chiefs, the majority of Kelce’s receptions come off of deep out and in routes. Another big portion of his yardage and catches come off of scrambles. When the first and second option are taken away from Mahomes, he’s able to extend the play with his legs. Kelce is a very smart player and knows how to move with his quarterback so he can be found.
On the other hand, Waller’s route running is much more expansive. Not only does Waller run a variety of routes including streaks, posts, drags, and zigs, but he also has incredible explosiveness on his cuts. The separation he can get with one cut is significantly more than that of Kelce or any other tight end. His acceleration and change of direction is like no other. That comes partly from his wide receiver days.
And the one thing that separates the top tier tight ends from all the others, is the blocking they provide. Kelce is an exception here as his abilities past the line of scrimmage make up for his lack of blocking. Not saying he’s a bad blocker, he just isn’t used in the blocking game because of the play calling of the Chiefs. On the flip side, Waller is one of, if not the best blocking tight end in the league. George Kittle definitely could take that title, but Waller is still just as good. Watching Raiders games all season, he was effective in the run block, pass block, and block and release game. He has a wide base and strong arms and hands to push back opposing ends and linebackers.
Right now, with the regular season being over, it’s impossible to make the argument that the numbers of Kelce simply make him better. Numbers are very deceiving. Although Kelce has just over 200 yards more receiving, Waller had two more receptions. They both acquired the exact same number of targets, but the offensive play style of both teams explain the discrepancy of yardage. Patrick Mahomes is constantly throwing bombs down the field to Hill and Kelce, whereas the Raiders work with short drag and flat routes for Waller.
That’s another reason Kelce has more yards, because Hill gets most of the defensive attention. With Hill always being double covered, that leaves Kelce to go one on one most of the time. When defenses play the Raiders, Waller is the one being double covered. Yet it still doesn’t matter. Waller makes those difficult catches through traffic, and has made more catches than Kelce, with the same number of targets.
The quarterback situation also plays a large role in the stats for these two tight ends. Mahomes is the best passing quarterback in the league, and it’s not even close. His arm is strong and extremely accurate and the plays they run always work. Derek Carr is indecisive and also often times refuses to take the passes given to him, and instead throws rash passes deep. As mentioned above, Mahomes also can extend the play with his legs, shown by the 40 scrambles he had on the year. Almost twice the amount of scrambles Carr had this year with 23.
Many also make the argument that Waller needs to have playoff success in order to surpass Kelce as the number one tight end. That is just not the case. Kelce has had playoff success because he had a fantastic team with him. Football is the ultimate team game and Kelce and the Chiefs are simply winners. Waller has yet to play in a playoff game, but that will come eventually. I can almost guarantee that if Travis Kelce wasn’t on the Chiefs, it wouldn’t make as big of a difference than if Waller wasn’t on the Raiders. Without Waller, the Raiders would be borderline unwatchable. Put Waller on the Chiefs, and his numbers would be so much better than Kelce.
Not only is Waller the best tight end, but he’s also fun to watch. Throughout the entire game, Waller can be seen laughing, smiling, and having fun with the game, while also staying humble. That trait goes back to some of his personal challenges earlier in life. I highly recommend watching the videos made on his past, it shows the type of person he is.
No matter how you look at it, Waller is becoming the next great tight end in the league. I personally think he has already surpassed Kelce as the best tight end. With the season wrapped up for the Raiders, fans will have to wait until next year to watch Waller play again, and thus continuing his outstanding play. But for now, the times have changed, and the title of best tight end in the league, now belongs to Darren Waller.
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports