Fantasy Football: Darren Waller Checks a Lot of Boxes for 2021
Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote a piece on this site laying out the case for Darren Waller being able to provide strong value at his average draft position (ADP). Citing the tight end's role in Jon Gruden's offense, Waller's after-the-catch ability, and the Las Vegas Raiders' general lack of wide receiver talent, I thought Waller had a strong case to outperform his ADP of 56th overall (TE5) and experience some positive touchdown regression after only three scores in 2019.
Looking back now, my enthusiasm for Waller proved to be too conservative. The Walrus scored an outstanding 225.1 points in half point-per-reception (PPR) formats (slightly more than 14 points per game), finishing second to only Travis Kelce among tight ends and scoring 75 more fantasy points that the TE3 (Robert Tonyan).
Moving into 2021 draft season, Waller's ADP from last year has been chopped in half, and it will now cost you a mid- to late-third round pick to acquire his services (ADP of 29th overall, TE3).
With Waller being the consensus third tight end off the board after Kelce and George Kittle, is a third-round selection too high a price for him? What are the realistic expectations for Waller after delivering the sixth-best PPR season ever for a tight end? Should we account for some kind of negative regression? If so, how much, and is it enough to knock down Waller's value a significant amount? Or is it possible Waller could be even better?
These the questions seasonal fantasy drafters must answer. Let's attempt to do so.
Historic Tight End Volume
For as much hype as Kelce and Kittle may get coming into 2021, neither of them can actually come close to Waller in regards to the share of their respective team's passing targets.
Among all receivers and tight ends who played at least 13 games in 2020, Waller ranked fourth with a 28% target share, trailing only Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and DeAndre Hopkins. Kelce and Mark Andrews checked in at just under 25% of their team's targets while Kittle demanded 24.4% of targets when he was healthy. In fact, Waller had more games with greater than 30% of his team's targets (four) than he did with fewer than 20% (two). For comparison, Kelce had four games with fewer than 20% of his team's targets (and did not play in Week 17).
The Raiders' approach to heavily feed Waller became the clear game-plan as 2020 unfolded. No other team targeted their tight ends more than Las Vegas did last season. According to Sharp Football, the Raiders targeted their tight ends an astounding 33% of their pass plays; the fourth-highest rate in the NFL across the last five years. But it's more than just how often the Raiders target their tight ends, it's where on the field they target Waller. Las Vegas ranked first in the NFL in yards per attempt to the tight end position last season at 9.3 yards per pass. Combine those deep throws with Waller's 572 yards after catch (YAC), which ranked third among all pass-catchers, and you have a recipe for a huge season.
Waller's 147 total targets in 2020 were also the fourth-most by any tight end since at least 2014, but he also was prolific in drawing red zone targets last season. Waller was targeted in the red area 27 times in 2020, the fifth-most since 2014, and his 77.8% catch rate there was far and away the highest among that group.
Receiver Question Marks Remain
What becomes clear when you begin to compare each top tight end's offense is that Waller simply does not have the level of pass-game competition that a player like Kelce, Kittle or Andrews will have. Kelce, of course, has to compete with the elite talent of Tyreek Hill as well as young up-and-comers like Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Mecole Hardman. Kittle has to split up a pie with Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and now Trey Sermon, who had 320 receiving yards in his last two years at Oklahoma.
The Raiders let Tyrell Williams slide over to Detroit Lions purgatory and Nelson Agholor signed with the New England Patriots, and Vegas replaced them with only Buffalo Bills' castoff John Brown. That means the Raiders' wide receiver depth chart still has just Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards and Brown in three-receiver sets. The Raiders' receivers in 2020 were, to put it nicely, not the greatest crop of receiver talent in NFL history. The Raiders' wide receiver corps ranked in the bottom 10 in receptions, drops, and drop percentage despite Derek Carr having the seventh-best On-Target Percentage for this throws, according to Pro-Football Reference.
It became clear by the third game of the 2020 season -- a game in which Waller had a whopping 47.1% target share -- that Carr was going to trust Waller when the team called for a pass. In fact, no other Raiders' pass catcher had a target share greater than 15.4% on the season last year. Even Ruggs was an extreme disappointment with just a 10.9% target share on the year, including zero games with a target share of at least 20%.
Unless any of this motley crew takes a massive, unexpected step forward in 2021, Waller should once again to bump up against a 30% target share.
Is Gruden Still Going to Grind?
Perhaps the biggest knock on investing in any Waller shares would be the perceived run-heavy tendencies of the the Raiders and their head coach, Jon Gruden.
It's true that Las Vegas has been one of the top 10 teams in highest rush play percentage the last two years (44.1% in 2020 and 44.2% in 2019). You can also point to the fact that in almost every offensive situation in 2020 -- regardless of down and distance -- their preferred play was to get their running backs involved, per Sharp Football.
But let's be clear about one thing -- this is not the Baltimore Ravens or Tennessee Titans we are dealing with here. Those teams are north of 50% run plays in their offensive scheme, so the Raiders passing 56% of the time still means quite a large pie from which Waller can eat.
The Green Bay Packers were right behind the Raiders in 2020 with a 43.8% rush play percentage, and we don't have these same concerns about Davante Adams in their offense. Adams is an alpha receiver playing with a bunch of other mediocre receiving talents, which is exactly the situation in which Waller finds himself. Carr has proven he can effectively get the ball to Waller all over the field, so a predicted run-heavy approach shouldn't be overblown in Waller's case.
We can't say we know definitively how the game-plans for the Raiders will shake out now that they have added Kenyan Drake to the backfield to complement Josh Jacobs. Do the Raiders install an even greater percentage of rushing plays now, or does Drake slide into the Jalen Richard role and play mostly on clear passing downs? Jacobs and Drake have a clear connection, both coming from Alabama, and there are certainly scenarios in play where both could see the field at the same time to open up the offense and confuse defenses.
Unless we see the Raiders' offense creep up north of 50% rushing plays, I'm not going to panic. Jacobs has proven to be a capable back on first and second downs, and Drake seems to excel more in a committee role, so I'm not convinced Drake's addition will dramatically change the way the Las Vegas offense operates.
Darren Waller's 2021 Fantasy Football Outlook
It's undeniable that Waller has a lot of things working in his favor in 2021. He is the clear number-one receiving option on Vegas, the Raiders' other receivers come with massive question marks, and Vegas -- when they do pass -- targets the tight end position at a frequent, historic rate.
Will the fact that Gruden now has Jacobs as the rushing thunder and Drake as the rushing lightning lead to a slightly more rush-heavy game-plan than we even saw in 2020? It's possible, but just through pure volume, Waller will likely finish as a top-three tight end barring any long-term injury. The questions then become is there room for further growth and how much you value production at the tight end spot compared to what else you can get around Waller's ADP
With a third-round draft cost, the calculus clearly has to be what is the opportunity cost of drafting Waller with such a high pick? Near the end of the third round, drafting Waller means missing on running backs like Edwards-Helaire (ADP of 27), Jacobs (28) and D'Andre Swift (30). It also means missing out on elite pass-catchers like Michael Thomas (31, and due for some serious touchdown regression), Keenan Allen (33), and perhaps Terry McLaurin (38). These all have the potential to be elite fantasy producers, but I would argue Waller has fewer question marks than any of these players except Allen.
In the end, I have Waller as my TE2 this year and would take his guaranteed production over any of these skill-position question marks, particularly in any PPR-type format. Assuming I have two workhorse running backs or one elite back and one elite wide receiver through two rounds, I have no problem taking Waller at his current ADP, especially as more training camp buzz starts building for him, which could drive his ADP closer to the second round. Anything after pick 35 or so is just plain stealing at this point as Waller (only 28 years old) has a floor/ceiling combination we can trust.
Our projections have him pegged for 154 targets, 109 receptions, 1199 yards and 7.5 touchdowns -- which is basically right in line with his 2020 output of 107 catches, 1,196 yards and 9 scores. I'm on board with the targets and touchdowns but would personally give him a bump in both receptions and yards.