Dynasty Football: A Deep Dive on Darren Waller
The rise of Darren Waller in fantasy football has been rapid in the last year or so. Touted in many circles since last offseason, notably mentioned in the 2019 edition of Matthew Berry’s combine article, Waller’s dynasty ADP and value steadily climbed last preseason and has stayed high after his breakout year. While he is a well-known name in fantasy football by now, it may surprise some that Waller has been in the league since the Ravens drafted him in 2015. So why has it taken so long for Waller to develop into a notable fantasy asset?
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Diving into Darren Waller
Waller played wide receiver during his college career at Georgia Tech. Though he was a fairly raw prospect, many projected him to be a third or fourth-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft due to his pure athletic talent. The chart below from MockDraftable illustrates Waller’s incredible athleticism.
While the percentile ratings seem low, remember that Waller was testing as a wide receiver rather than as a tight end, his current position. For a better comparison, here are Jimmy Graham‘s combine measurements as a baseline.
Though Waller’s lower weight gave him an advantage in many of these categories, his physical talents are still apparent, out-performing Graham in the 40-yard dash and 20-yard shuttle while measuring similarly in both vertical and broad jump length. Ultimately, Waller fell to Baltimore in the sixth round despite his athleticism due to character concerns, likely stemming from two suspensions in college for violating team rules.
A Rough Break-In
As a rookie in 2015, Waller caught just two passes in six games played before going on injured reserve due to a hamstring injury. Then in 2016, the NFL suspended Waller for the first four games for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Though he played 12 games that year after converting from wide receiver to tight end, he caught just 10 passes. The following year, Waller was suspended yet again for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, this time for the entire 2017 season. Baltimore waived Waller in 2018, and upon his reinstatement to the league, the Raiders signed him to their practice squad.
In Waller’s first year in Oakland, he again was a non-factor, logging just six receptions for 75 yards in four games during the 2018 season. It wouldn’t be until last season that Waller would finally break out to the tune of 90 receptions for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. It’s been quite a journey for him over the past four years, but enough with the history lesson; so what can we expect from Waller in 2020 and beyond?
It would be remiss not to discuss Waller’s history of substance abuse. From an episode of Hard Knocks, Waller noted that he began taking pills at age 15 and was “getting high, literally, every day” on oxycodone, Xanax, and cocaine during his tenure in Baltimore. To be clear, it’s an amazing accomplishment that Waller has now stayed clean for nearly three years, and I am rooting for him to remain clean. However, from a dynasty football perspective, his history of substance abuse is a huge red flag and risk factor. Dynasty owners should be cognizant of the risk in rostering Waller. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the relapse rate for substance use disorders is estimated to be between 40 and 60 percent. Though each individual case is different, Josh Gordon and Martavis Bryant are the most recent examples of talented young athletes whose careers have been derailed by substance abuse.
And while dynasty owners may draw assurance from the Raiders extending Waller through 2023, it’s worth noting that only the first year of his contract is more or less guaranteed. The Raiders have the ability to release Waller at any point after the 2020 season with no dead money owed. Though we all hope that Waller can stay clean, the cautionary nature of Waller’s contract structure is indicative of the Raiders’ organization recognizing his inherent risk of relapse.
Darren Waller Going Forward
Even if you believe in Waller’s ability to stay clean, there are other concerns with his dynasty value looking ahead. For one, Waller’s wasted years in Baltimore and Oakland mean that he is significantly older than other breakout players, as he will turn 28 years old in September. Though his relatively low wear and tear as a result of his missed games is a positive, the dynasty community as a whole often devalues players past the age of 30 years old. This means that Waller’s trade value may decline more quickly than that of a younger breakout player, and he’s a dynasty asset more suited to teams looking to contend in the immediate future.
Beyond his age, Waller’s target share is also a concern going forward. In 2019, Derek Carr targeted Waller on an astonishing 117 targets of his total 513 pass attempts, about a 22.8 percent target share of the team total. In fact, Waller had the 24th most targets across all players in the league last season. The only tight ends with more targets than Waller in 2019 were Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Zach Ertz. Let’s compare Waller’s target share to those of the other top tight ends.
At a glance, it would seem that Waller’s target share can be sustainable, as it was still lower than those of Kelce, Kittle, and Ertz. However, I included the adjusted number for Kelce to illustrate that he managed to maintain his high target share as a true No. 1 target even with the presence of Tyreek Hill. Likewise, Kittle was the clear top target for Jimmy Garoppolo despite the emergence of Deebo Samuel and San Francisco’s overall run-heavy game plans. On the other hand, Waller was the de facto no. 1 target in Oakland due to various injuries to the Raiders’ receiving corps, and I don’t project his high target share to remain sustainable going into 2020. I share similar concerns of target regression for both Ertz and fellow Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert going forward, and perhaps we’ll revisit and expound on them in a separate article.
The main takeaway here is that 2019 was the perfect storm for Waller to have a career year, at least in terms of target share, receptions, and yardage, though his touchdown rate has the potential to rise. The Raiders expected to have Antonio Brown as their primary receiver after trading for the troubled superstar last March. Following Brown’s release in September, Oakland was left with Tyrell Williams as their no. 1 wide receiver, who they signed in March after trading for Brown. Though Williams produced early on in the season, the Raiders likely had intended for Williams to be a complementary piece to Brown, as he’s a more suitable deep threat than a true no. 1 receiver.
Williams also missed two games in Weeks 5 and 7 due to plantar fasciitis, and he struggled to produce the remainder of the season as he played through his foot issues. Additionally, he was active for Week 17 but played just 21 snaps due to injury. In the first four weeks, a healthy Williams averaged 6.0 targets per game compared to just 4.4 targets from Week 8 onward. His per-game production also dropped from 4.3 receptions for 54 yards prior to his injury down to 2.8 receptions for 48 yards post-injury. Surprisingly enough, as the table below shows, Waller’s targets and receptions per game did not fluctuate much in the three games without Williams, but Waller’s per-game yardage decreased significantly when Williams was on the field.
Room for Two?
There was also a stark contrast in Waller’s per-game splits with and without Hunter Renfrow. With Williams struggling upon his return, Renfrow’s role in the offense grew as the season progressed. He averaged just 4.5 targets per game in the first four weeks compared to 5.9 targets starting in Week 5 following Williams’s injury. Renfrow missed three games late in the season due to fractured ribs and a punctured lung. But even so, his production increased from averaging 2.8 catches for 22 yards in the first four games to 4.2 catches for 57 yards from Week 5 onward. Much like with Williams out, Waller’s per-game yardage was far higher without Renfrow on the field.
Ultimately, Waller’s per-game target share and production decreased significantly when both Williams and Renfrow were active, as demonstrated by the table below. He averaged over 90 yards per game when Williams or Renfrow was out compared to less than 60 yards per game with both Williams and Renfrow active.
Lack of Paydirt
You may have noticed that I haven’t yet mentioned Waller’s touchdown rate. That’s because though Waller’s touchdown rate is technically far higher with Williams out, this statistic isn’t meaningful given that Waller scored two of his three touchdowns on the season in Week 7 against Green Bay. Overall, Waller’s scoring rate was low. In fact, his scoring rate was much lower than those of the other three highest-targeted tight ends in the league.
While this could suggest that Waller’s scoring rate will increase next year as it regresses to the mean, that may not necessarily be the case. Although Waller’s overall target total was high, his red zone target shares, both inside the 20-yard line as well as inside the 10-yard line, were quite low. Whereas other top tight ends dominated nearly a quarter or more of their team’s red zone targets (Kelce’s target share of 41 percent inside the 10-yard line is nothing short of incredible), Waller ranked just 17th among tight ends in red zone target share per Pro Football Reference, behind even backup tight ends like Irv Smith Jr. and Josh Hill.
These red zone statistics indicate that while the Raiders’ scoring efficiency can improve despite tallying the 10th fewest offensive touchdowns scored in 2019, Waller’s red zone usage would need to drastically change for him to improve upon his touchdown scoring rate. Just as concerning is the threat of a healthy Foster Moreau, who could further detract from Waller’s red zone target share. The two Raiders tight ends are highlighted in the table above in gray.
Even though Waller received far more targets on the season with 117 targets to Moreau’s 25, Waller only received 11 targets inside the 20-yard line compared to Moreau’s seven, and both Waller and Moreau received four targets apiece inside the 10-yard line. Moreau was seemingly more efficient as well, converting all seven of his red zone targets for touchdowns compared to Waller’s 64 percent conversion rate. Moreau finished the season on injured reserve after suffering a knee injury in Week 14, but if he’s ready to start the 2020 season, Moreau’s presence could again be a big detriment to Waller’s red zone production.
It Could Get Crowded
As if the impact of a healthy Williams, Renfrow, and Moreau on Waller’s targets wasn’t enough, it’s a fair assumption that the Raiders will likely add impactful receiver depth to their existing roster, whether via free agency or the draft, or both. The Raiders recently released linebacker Tahir Whitehead in March and now have over $56 million in salary-cap space heading into free agency, 11th most in the league at the time of this writing. They also command two top-20 draft picks as well as three third-round draft picks in a rookie class that’s full of talent at the wide receiver position. Some are even projecting the Raiders to select a receiver like CeeDee Lamb or Jerry Jeudy as early as pick no. 12 or pick no. 19.
Considering the questionable sustainability of Waller’s overall target share as well as an already-low red zone target share, he’s a strong candidate for regression in 2020. Factoring in the likelihood of the Raiders adding wide receiver depth and Waller’s history of substance abuse and risk of relapse, Waller is an incredibly risky dynasty asset. Per Dynasty Trade Calculator as well as the results of a recent Twitter poll shown below, the dynasty football community’s current consensus on Waller seems to be that he’s worth around a late first-round or early second-round rookie pick.
I look forward to a long and illustrious career for this talented tight end with the hope that Waller can and will overcome his personal battle with substance abuse. However, for fantasy purposes, I would recommend that dynasty owners sell at the price of a late first-round rookie pick or better in standard 1QB PPR formats. Over a third of the respondents to my Twitter poll valued Waller as a late-first round rookie pick or better, so it would seem plausible to find a buyer in that price range in your leagues. Although Waller can maintain serviceable back-end TE1 fantasy production, he’s unlikely to be a true difference maker at the position barring a drastic change in the Raiders’ offensive scheme or quarterback situation. It’s likely that we’ve already seen Waller’s most productive season, and the risk of relapse and likelihood for target regression haven’t yet been properly factored into his dynasty value.
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