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Fantasy Football: Does Darren Waller have a case as the overall TE1?

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There aren’t many better comeback stories than Darren Waller, who battled substance-abuse issues during his first three years in the league with the Ravens before signing on with the Raiders toward the end of the 2018 season. All he’s done since is post 90-1,145-3 and 107-1,196-9 campaigns, looking a lot like one of the game’s best players at his position along the way.

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This latter statement isn’t up for debate inside of the glorious American pastime known as fantasy football: Only Travis Kelce and George Kittle have averaged more PPR points per game than Waller over the past two seasons. Defenses have regularly struggled to find an appropriate defender to deal with the sort of size and speed issues that the Raiders’ No. 1 pass-game option presents on a near every-down basis.

What follows is a breakdown on what has made Waller so damn good over the years, how the Raiders’ passing game looks ahead of 2021 and where you should select the soon-to-be 29-year-old TE in fantasy football drafts.

Waller, for lack of a better word, is good

There are 46 tight ends with at least 50 targets since 2019. It’s tough to find a receiving metric that doesn’t paint Waller as an elite performer among this group:

  • PFF receiving grade: 91.3 (No. 3)
  • Receptions: 197 (No. 2)
  • Receiving yards: 2,342 (No. 2)
  • Receiving TDs: 12 (tied for No. 4)
  • First downs: 122 (No. 2)
  • Contested catches: 27 (No. 1)
  • Missed tackles forced: 20 (No. 4)
  • Yards per reception: 11.9 (tied for No. 11)
  • Yards per route run: 2.34 (No. 4)
  • Drop rate: 3.4% (tied for No. 9)

Waller spent 35% of his snaps lined up in the slot or out wide last season; he certainly leans heavier to the receiving side than the blocking side of the tight end scale. Overall, Waller has ranked 39th and 81st in run-blocking grade among qualified tight ends. Hardly ideal; just realize he wouldn’t be posting snap rates north of 90% more weeks than not if this part of his game was a massive issue.

And why should anyone even ask Waller to block in the first place? Call him a tight end if you must, but regardless of arbitrary positional designation: Waller is a stud No. 1 receiver.

Waller’s dominance was never more apparent than down the stretch of 2020, when he ripped off 13-200-2, 7-75-0, 9-150-1, 5-112-0 and 9-117-1 receiving lines in Weeks 13-17 to help bring home fantasy championships to faithful investors around the world. Since 2019, Kelce has 269 targets, Waller has 255 and in a distant third place Zach Ertz rests at 196.

Volume has certainly played a factor in Waller’s rise to the top of the position in fantasyland, but he’s maintained elite efficiency even with this voluminous role. Of course, his QB also deserves credit for assisting him in balling the hell out last season.

The Raiders’ longtime QB was rather awesome in 2020

We saw the best version of Derek Carr that we’ve ever seen last season. Yes, that includes Carr’s rather fraudulent 2016 MVP campaign. The 2020 edition posted superior marks in big-time throw rate (6.7% vs. 5.3%), yards per attempt (7.6 vs. 6.8), adjusted completion rate (75% vs. 70.8%) and QB rating (96.5 vs. 92.2) all while posting an actually solid average target depth (9.1 vs. 8.6).

The problem for Carr is that 1) No. 1 WR Nelson Agholor took his talents to New England, and 2) the Raiders don’t boast a top-five highest-paid offensive line for the first time since before 2015. On paper, the likes of Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, John Brown and Hunter Renfrow *should* be able to supply ample ability to replace Agholor, who was no joke really good last season. Additionally, the aforementioned O-line concerns could be soothed by unretired LG Richie Incognito and first-round tackle Alex Leatherwood if he proves to be NFL ready from Day 1.

The Raiders boasted the NFL’s 10th-highest scoring offense last year paired with the 30th-worst defense. Only the Titans also boasted a difference of at least 20 in scoring rank between their offense and defense. Even a solid boost from the defense would leave them as an average unit at best; don’t be surprised if Jon Gruden is forced to (again) rely on his offense coming out on top in shootouts in order to win football games.

Add it all together and …

It’s time to treat Waller as fantasy’s overall TE2

Kelce has been fantasy’s TE1 for five years running and could be called the best tight end in the game at the moment for a variety of reasons. He’s fully deserving of again entering 2021 as the position’s consensus No. 1 player; the bigger question is what to make of the second spot between Waller and Kittle.

I believe that Kittle is the better real life player than Waller. The only human being that averaged more yards per route run than the stud 49ers TE (2.84) last season was Davante Adams (2.96). The 2021 TE3 in PPR points per game, Kittle would probably have my vote ahead of Kelce as the league’s best overall player at the position if we could convince God to turn off injuries. Alas, the real world isn’t so fine, and we also have to deal with Kittle continuing to 1) operate in a run-first offense, and 2) lose target share to Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk. If there’s a TE that is capable of making the most out of somewhat reduced targets, it’s Kittle; unfortunately these volume concerns are legit enough to wonder if it’s time to leap Waller ahead of the 49ers’ stud talent.

We know Waller is the Raiders’ No. 1 pass-game option. We don’t know if Kittle will lead the 49ers in targets. We know Derek Carr is capable of enabling Waller to great heights. We don’t know if Trey Lance will see enough pass game volume to provide Kittle the sort of fantasy-friendly workload he’s typically seen over the years.

Both Waller and Kittle landed in my “absolute ballers that work as their offense’s No. 1 pass-game option” tier. I don’t like to call anybody injury prone, but we certainly have a bit more question marks there for Kittle as opposed to Waller. Throw in the likelihood that Lance is under center for at least a portion of 2021, and I’m comfortable firing up Waller as fantasy’s No. 2 player at the position.

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