The Broncos hope things are different under new head coach Vic Fangio. One thing that needs to change is this team’s inability to cover tight ends. This has been a problem in Denver for years, as they have not had an answer for opposing tight ends since Danny Trevathan was playing inside linebacker.
The Broncos defense will get an interesting test from a secret weapon the Raiders have on offense, veteran tight end Darren Waller. How can a veteran who has been in the league for a few years be a secret weapon? Well, that’s because Waller has spent most of his time in the league either injured or suspended.
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said earlier this year that Waller was “one of the best kept secrets” in the NFL. In Week 1, we’ll see if Oakland unleashes him against Denver.
Will Waller torch the Broncos on Monday night? Let’s take a look.
Converted Wide Receiver
During his college days at Georgia Tech, Waller played as a wide receiver. In three seasons with the Yellow Jackets, he caught 51 passes for 971 yards and nine touchdowns.
He’s got great size, measuring in at 6-feet-6-inches and 240 pounds. Waller’s frame and length immediately make him a tough player to match up with. That’s why the Ravens chose him in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Waller was never going to be a wide receiver at the pro level, however, mainly because he’s not fast enough. But the Ravens felt if they converted him to a tight end, he could be a dangerous weapon.
They were correct in their assessment of Waller playing tight end – at least in theory – because we never got to see what he could be at his full potential due to off-field problems. He caught only 12 passes with two touchdowns during his time in Baltimore before the team lost him to the Raiders.
Trouble in Baltimore
We’ve learned a lot about Waller during “Hard Knocks” this summer on HBO. His career began in Baltimore, but Waller was not himself by his own admission. During an episode of “Hard Knocks” a couple of weeks ago, Waller admitted that he spent his time with the Ravens “getting high literally every day” on pain pills, cocaine, Xanax, and “whatever I could get my hands on.”
Waller was first suspended by the NFL in 2016 when he missed four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. He was then suspended for a whole year in 2017 for the same reason. Finally, Waller was reinstated in 2018, but he ended up on the Ravens practice squad. In late November of that year, Waller was picked up by the Raiders and finished the season with six catches for 75 yards.
He played a few games as a backup to Raiders starting tight end Jared Cook. With Cook leaving to the New Orleans Saints in free agency this spring, the starting tight end position was turned over to Waller for the 2019 season. He’s been clean for two years and is ready for this large opportunity.
Waller has been one of the most-hyped players for the Raiders this preseason. It mainly has to do with him being an interesting character in “Hard Knocks,” but it also has to do with the fact that he was barely used in the exhibition part of the year.
During the Raiders four preseason games, Waller played in one game – against the Cardinals – and came down with one catch for seven yards. That’s it. Waller has been given the “opportunity of a lifetime” according to Gruden, but an injury has kept him from flashing that talent outside of minicamp and OTAs.
Waller has been hyped all spring and summer long, but we have little to go on other than some quotes from Gruden.
“He’s not been brought up as a tight end, but he has made a lot of progress,” said Gruden. “He’s got some big shoes to fill, I know he respects that, but he’s versatile, smart, fast. He wants to do good.”
It was revealed in early August that Waller was dealing with a shoulder injury, a sprained AC joint, and that’s why we haven’t seen much of him in the preseason. Waller has talent and is an intriguing prospect because of his wide receiver skill set, but he had better not get the best of what we hope is an improved Broncos defense.
Ever since Trevathan left in free agency, the Broncos have struggled to cover tight end. They’ve went through a few linebackers looking for a replacement, but the problem of tight end coverage has remained.
Last year in Week 1 against the Seahawks, then rookie tight end Will Dissly had three catches for 105 yards and one touchdown. It’s not like Dissly was a premium pick in 2018. He was a fourth-round pick out of Washington and known mostly for his ability as a blocker. Because the Broncos struggle to cover tight ends, Dissly was able to have the best game of his rookie season in his pro debut.
We all remember what happened to the Broncos defense in Week 14 against the 49ers last year. If you need a refresher, just remember the near record-setting performance of George Kittle. The Broncos defense couldn’t stop him in the first half, and Kittle finished the game with seven catches for a whopping 210 yards and one touchdown.
The Broncos defense will be missing top inside linebacker Todd Davis in Week 1 against the Raiders. That means they’ll be using reserve players or sub-packages in order to slow down the Raiders passing attack over the middle. If they don’t find the right solution to cover tight ends, then a secret weapon like Waller may have a breakout game and no longer be a secret for the rest of the league.
Not only is Waller a potential problem, but looking over the rest of the schedule in 2019, the Broncos have to deal with the likes of Jimmy Graham, David Njoku, Hunter Henry and others. Oh yeah, don’t forget Travis Kelce twice a year, too.
Waller has been all hype for the Raiders to this point. The Broncos don’t want that hype to turn into reality on Monday night.
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