Heading into the Broncos’ first game in Las Vegas against their longtime rivals, the playmaker to keep an eye on in silver-and-black is Darren Waller.
Because for even the most diehard Denver fans who love to hate the Raiders, the dynamic tight end is a guy worth rooting for.
Waller took the bumpy road to NFL stardom after being selected by Baltimore in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. Hindered by substance abuse issues that began in his teenage years, Waller was suspended the first four games of the 2016 season for violating the NFL substance abuse policy, and then was suspended again for all of the 2017 season.
“I just didn’t respect who I was because I knew how much I was performing to just impress other people,” Waller told The New York Post in September. “I was shutting off parts of myself that were authentically me and putting on fronts, putting on a mask just to impress people, just to fit in. And I knew deep down the spirit inside me, it didn’t fit right. So when I would look in the mirror, it was just like I saw a phony.”
It wasn’t until Waller overdosed in his car that he finally took rehabilitation seriously. After going to rehab, Waller took a job stocking shelves at Sprouts Farmers Market before returning to the NFL in 2018 with the Ravens, who put him on their practice squad. The Raiders claimed him on Nov. 27 of that year, and Waller has morphed into one of the league’s best tight ends in the short time since.
Broncos safety Kareem Jackson says Waller (50 catches for 394 yards and four touchdowns in 2020) is in the same elite category as Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and San Francisco’s George Kittle, a record-setting duo widely considered the modern standard at the position.
“A guy with the skill set that he possesses definitely should be in that conversation,” Jackson said. “The big (6-foot-6) guy can run, can catch — they use him in so many different ways. He presents a lot of different mismatches, even for corners and safeties (because he’s) such a big guy. He definitely should be in that conversation because he’s doing the exact same thing (Kelce and Kittle) are doing.”
Waller had 90 receptions for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns in 2019 while earning a contract extension that keeps him in Las Vegas through 2023. That means he’ll be a long-term problem for Denver and the rest of the AFC West.
But as Waller’s shown through his public fight with substance abuse, and in his Darren Waller Foundation aimed at helping at-risk youth avoid and overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol, Broncos fans should know this Raider is one of the good guys.
— Kyle Newman, The Denver Post
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