Fantasy Football: Draft Darren Waller With Confidence
The 27-year-old tight end had a total of 29 targets in his first three NFL seasons combined, but he exploded onto the scene with 117 targets and 1,145 receiving yards, finishing the season as TE2 in most formats.
With just one season of extraordinary offensive production under his belt, fantasy owners are unsure where to slot Waller. Does he belong in the upper tier of tight ends along with Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Zach Ertz, and Mark Andrews, or is caution the best course of action, placing him lower inside the Evan Engram and Hunter Henry tier?
Early drafters don't have a clear answer to this question. Waller's ADP on FantasyPros in early drafting sits at 56th overall, good for TE5. Ertz is TE4 at 36th overall, while Engram sits at 71st as TE6.
Waller appears to be in a tier of his own, as many owners are taking a wait-and-see approach before bumping him into the elite group for 2020. Despite the fact that we have only seen one season of reasonable production out of Waller, his place in the Raiders' offense -- and some course correction on 2019 bad luck -- should give drafters full confidence that Waller can pay off his draft position and firmly position himself in the elite tier at the position.
Las Vegas' Offensive Tendencies
It will come as no surprise that a team with Jon Gruden at the helm is going to keep running the ball like it's 1988.
Las Vegas rushed the ball 437 times in 2019, 11th-most in the the league despite finishing with a -106 point differential. Conversely, the Raiders passed the ball only 523 times, 21st in the league. However, the Raiders finished with the ninth highest passing yards total at 3,926.
Why the discrepancy between attempts and total yards? It hinges on the tendencies of Derek Carr, who likes to air the ball out when given the opportunity.
Carr ranked ninth in the NFL last season with 7.9 yards per attempt AND ranked second in the league with a 70.4% completion percentage. For comparison, a quarterback like Matthew Stafford ranked second in the NFL with 8.6 yards per attempt but was 16th in completing 64.3% of his passes. Carr possesses the unique combination of accurate passes on deeper balls that allow his play-makers to make things happen downfield.
Las Vegas has also shown overwhelmingly that the tight end will be a focal point of their passing game. According to Sharp Football, the Raiders have been in the top seven of target share to tight ends the past two seasons, including third in 2019 with a full 33% of the passing targets headed towards the position. Carr also led a passing attack that averaged 8.8 yards per attempt to the tight end position, again ranking third.
Josh Jacobs and Jalen Richard may get the publicity for the Gruden grinders heading into 2020, but when the passing game is needed, it's the tight end position that clearly benefits most on the Raiders.
Lackluster Group of Receivers
For how good the running backs and tight ends have been and can be, the wide receiver corps is a full list of question marks, including first round draft pick Henry Ruggs.
A hyped product out of Alabama, Ruggs surely made the Al Davis family salivate by posting a 100th percentile score in the 40-yard dash and 90th percentile speed score. But just because he is faster than the wind and the Raiders' ownership like speedy players doesn't guarantee NFL success.
Ruggs is an undersized receiver at only 5'11" and 188 pounds who demanded only a 13.1% target share in his last season at Tuscaloosa. If Ruggs lacks prototypical receiver size and his specialty is being a burner on the field, shouldn't he have exceeded his final season 17.4 yards per reception and demanded more than 5 targets per game? Ruggs never actually achieved a college dominator rating above 20%, meaning he never truly broke out. According to Player Profiler, Cordarrelle Patterson was the only other first-round receiver since 2000 without a breakout season, .
Anytime you are in a club with Cordarelle Patterson as the only other member, that should be a huge red flag.
Tyrell Williams, on the other hand, does have NFL size at 6'3" and 204 pounds and also tested stopwatch limits with an 81st percentile speed score and 90th percentile burst score. But he has never transformed into a reliable, consistent wide receiver. Despite the eighth-best catchable target rate and sixth-best target quality rating in 2019 (according to Player Profiler), Williams' catch rate was only 39th among all wide receivers.
Williams' inconsistency on the field also translates into fantasy frustration. In 2019, he never ranked better than 15th among all PPR wide receivers in any given week while ranking below the 50th-ranked receiver in 5 of his 13 games. Williams may be a nice late-round best ball candidate, but as an alpha receiver in the Raiders' passing attack, he comes up short.
That designation in 2019 clearly fell to Waller, and he excelled despite some truly bad luck
Positive Regression Is Coming
Despite his strong finish to the 2019 season, there is actually plenty of room for Waller to see some positive regression -- particularly in the touchdown department.
Since 2000, there have been 63 seasons where a tight end was targeted at least 115 times (Waller had 117). Of those 62 other tight ends, only six other players crossed the plane fewer than Waller's three from last year. All six of those tight ends also had far fewer receiving yards and also tallied a lower catch rate, yards per catch, and yards per target. In fact, of the top 15 tight ends in terms of yards per target, Waller is the only one to score as few as three touchdowns.
Waller also proved last season that he is far from just a catch-and-fall tight end. His 570 total yards after the catch were fifth among all NFL receivers and trailed only Kittle among tight ends. The ability to continue down the field combined with a strong catch rate of 77% (seventh-best among all tight ends) gives us a player who should be visiting the end zone far more in 2020.
Waller's touchdown rate (touchdowns/targets) in 2019 was a paltry 2.6%. League average for all players last year was 4.6%. If we bump up Waller's touchdowns in 2019 to even just a league average rate, he scores at least five touchdowns, further separating him from Kittle, Ertz, and Andrews as a top-two tight end and resulting in a campaign with more PPR fantasy points than Mike Evans, Tyler Lockett, and a host of other top wide receivers.
The great unknown for Waller heading into 2020 is whether he can possibly repeat his breakout season from last year, particularly on a team that trends towards being run-heavy under old-school head coach Jon Gruden. However, on a roster that is full of unproven or unreliable wideouts, Waller is far and away the most reliable pass catcher at Derek Carr's disposal. He led all qualified Raiders receivers in receptions, targets, receiving yards, yard per game, and catch rate, and he trailed just Tyrell Williams for the team lead in yards per target.
This type of involvement in the Raiders' offense -- assuming it continues -- will inevitably lead to an increase in end zone spikes based on simple positive regression. I'm willing to bet Waller won't end the year with the same number of touchdowns as Browns backup tight end Demetrius Harris again.
Drafters should have full confidence that Waller will continue to be Derek Carr's favorite target in 2020 and should not be afraid to grab him at his current draft position in the middle of the sixth round, perhaps even being willing to reach slightly higher.