The term ‘sleeper’ has been shaped and reshaped in recent years, and it’s gotten to the point where no one even knows what it means anymore. A player hiding in round six or seven may return serious value in a given season, but they’re likely a well-known asset in the fantasy community. A real sleeper is someone who isn’t commonly tossed around in any discussion but isn’t completely off the radar. Phillip Lindsay and Marlon Mack came out of nowhere last year and even Pat Mahomes was someone that a lot of people questioned in year one. If you’re able to identify the next true sleeper before they’re a hot waiver wire commodity, your championship hopes can increase significantly. Anyone who rostered George Kittle in 2018 can certainly confirm this.
Speaking of Kittle, let’s talk about someone who might repeat his success in 2019 (to a degree). Our editor Kyle provided an in-depth look at this topic, but I have to make sure I call him out on potentially forgetting one (come on, Kyle!). I’m teasing of course, but this represents how under-the-radar this guy really is. We may get a chance to see him on HBO in the next month, so I wanted to make sure I called my shot ahead of time. Let me introduce you to the man no one knows who just might light the league on fire if the chips fall the right way: Darren Waller.
Darren Waller was a sixth-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2015, and he hasn’t spent a ton of time on the field since. The reason for his slow start wasn’t because of his on-field play, it was because of his off the field decision making. Waller suffered a season-ending injury his rookie year, then missed the first four weeks of 2016 because of a suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. At that point, he was too far behind to see the field in his first season. He was again suspended for the full 2017 season for another violation but was finally a full go for the Raiders in 2018. As many of you remember, Jared Cook had a top-6 fantasy campaign last year while Waller served as his backup for the full 16 games. Historically the tight end position takes a lot of time to develop, and Waller didn’t do himself any favors to speed that up. Thankfully all of those obstacles should be out of the way for 2019, and Waller has a chance to show the world what he can do. What exactly can he do? I’m glad you asked.
League Breaking Upside
Waller is a 6’6 specimen who has physical tools that rival some of the best pass-catcherss in the league, at any position. His ridiculous 4.46 40 time at the 2015 combine was the fastest of any tight end in the last four years besides Evan Engram, and his athletic profile in general is mouth watering. Check out his snapshot from PlayerProfiler:
Intrigued yet? You should be. If you aren’t exactly sure what those numbers mean, go take a look at George Kittle or Evan Engram’s profile on the same site, and you’ll notice they are eerily similar. He isn’t just an athletic tight end, he’s one of the most athletic tight ends in the entire league. Waller received a higher burst score than George Kittle, possesses a bigger catch radius than Travis Kelce, compiled a higher yard per reception number in college than Noah Fant, and has a frame that’s nearly identical to Rob Gronkowski. His former teammate Jared Cook had a phenomenal combine which is well documented, but if you do some digging you will see that Waller’s numbers across the board are more dynamic than Cook’s in every single category. Waller steps into the same role that Cook flourished in just a year ago, and he has the chance to make an impact immediately. I don’t say this very often about players who haven’t done much on the field yet, but Darren Waller truly has league-winning upside.
And I haven’t even mentioned his pass-catching abilities.
Can He Produce?
Absolutely. Have we seen him produce? Well…. Sort of. First off I want to mention that Waller played wide receiver in college, so his route tree and natural ability to catch the football are already light years ahead of a lot of tight ends in the league. In situations like this, we’d hope to find eye-popping statistics from his college days to point to, but they really aren’t there. I can sum up the reason for this in two words: Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets have resisted the urge to adapt to today’s game in a number of ways, but the most well known is their outright refusal to throw the football. In Waller’s senior season they only threw 201 pass attempts as a team. Waller’s performance looks underwhelming in a vacuum, but when you add the context of the offense into the equation, his efficiency was more than adequate.
Waller accounted for 23% of the teams receiving yards, and a whopping 37% of the teams receiving touchdowns. For context, Gronk’s senior season he had 21% and 43% in these categories. It’s tough to take anything too seriously when it comes to Tech’s passing game, but it’s very clear that Waller is a gifted athlete with great hands who has produced near the end zone when given the opportunity. The biggest obstacle he faces in 2019 will be just that – whether or not he gets the opportunity. He has ‘project’ written all over him, which might indicate why he’s had such a slow start to his pro career. But If anyone is going to make the most of Waller’s raw talent, it’s Jon Gruden.
Let’s finally get to the meat of this argument, and frankly – the only thing that really matters. Waller has let some years go to waste early on in his career, so hopefully, he’s matured as a professional and is ready to make the leap from backup to starter. The Raiders are very thin in the pass-catching department past Antonio Brown, which means that the target distribution should be wide open with Jared Cook taking off for New Orleans. Cook wasn’t a household name for most people until he set foot in Gruden’s offense, and the second-year coach is notorious for utilizing his tight ends. It’s very reasonable to expect Waller to step right into Cook’s role if he can win the job in camp. Waller isn’t as refined of a route runner at this point in his career, but his athletic upside makes him a potential upgrade near the end zone. Early reports in training camp have mentioned he’s been “unguardable” and have referred to him as Oaklands “secret weapon”, with many more sources agreeing that he’s definitely stood out thus far.
The simple truth is that the Raiders have to find someone to step up behind AB, and there’s not a clear cut option identified yet. Tyrell Williams has the early lead based on his career trajectory, but we can’t ignore Gruden’s fascination with dynamic Tight Ends running out of the slot. Waller may not be the most experienced guy on the roster, but when it comes to league winning upside, experience comes secondary. George Kittle was a double-digit selection in most fantasy leagues but ended up being the waiver pickup of the year. Waller doesn’t have as clean of a skillset as Kittle, but his upside is very similar. If Derek Carr can return to his 2016 form, he’s going to need a lot of help from his pass-catchers. Keep an eye on the Oakland depth chart over the course of the next month and what they do with the tight end position. If Waller can lock up the TE1 spot before Week 1, he could be someone that blows the lid off the position in the late rounds.