Darren Waller is one of the most talented pass catchers in the NFL. He’s proven capable of being an elite TE1 in the past. However, his circumstances have changed with the Las Vegas Raiders’ recent transactions, and he hasn’t been as good as some think. How should dynasty fantasy football managers value Waller in 2022 and beyond?
Darren Waller’s dynasty profile for 2022
Evaluating tight ends is always a bit trickier than running backs and wide receivers. When it comes to tight ends, it’s not enough for a player to be one of the best at his position — he also has to be a difference-maker.
Travis Kelce has been the dynasty TE1 for the last half-decade. But being the best doesn’t mean the same thing every season. From 2018-2020, Kelce finished as the overall TE1 in fantasy points per game (minimum eight games played). He averaged 18.4 ppg in 2018, 15.9 in 2019, and 20.9 in 2020. Those are all very different seasons. You can’t just say Kelce was the best tight end in fantasy and convey how well he performed.
Waller’s path to stardom is as unconventional as it gets. He was selected as a wide receiver in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. After he did nothing as a rookie, the Ravens converted him to tight end. That didn’t seem to work, and Waller dealt with off-the-field issues, resulting in a full-season suspension in 2017. The Raiders poached Waller from the Ravens’ practice squad in 2018, but, again, he barely played.
Then, in 2019, Waller exploded out of nowhere, catching 90 balls for 1,145 yards and 3 touchdowns. He finished as the TE5 (minimum eight games played), averaging 13.8 PPR fantasy points per game. Waller has now been a top-six tight end for three consecutive seasons. He’s firmly established himself as one of the best tight ends in fantasy football. But how valuable is Waller for dynasty managers going forward?
Fantasy projection for Waller
At 6’6”, Waller is a mammoth human. He’s one of the best athletes in all of sports. The man ran a 4.46 40 and has a 96th percentile catch radius. His path to relevancy is unlikely any we’ve ever seen, but Waller is not going anywhere.
So that’s the good. Now for the not-so-good. Waller truly ascended into the ranks of the elite dynasty tight ends following his 2020 season. He averaged 17.4 ppg, trailing only Kelce in TE scoring. While Waller is definitely an excellent fantasy tight end, he was overvalued, and I must admit I fell for it in 2021.
Waller’s 17.4 ppg in 2020 is a bit misleading. He only exceeded his average five times all season. Waller was spectacular in 2020, scoring at least 10 fantasy points in all but four games. However, he wasn’t as good overall as his final numbers suggest.
Waller scored 46% of his fantasy points across four games. From Weeks 1-10, Waller averaged 13.1 ppg. It’s a very respectable number but not difference-making. From Weeks 11-17, Waller averaged 22.9 ppg.
Waller was a league-winner in every sense of the word, scoring 45 fantasy points in the final week of the fantasy regular season and 30 fantasy points in the most important week of the playoffs, the semifinals.
In 2021, Waller averaged just 12.1 ppg. A Thanksgiving injury derailed his season, but Waller wasn’t exactly making a difference before then. After scoring 26.5 fantasy points in Week 1, Waller wouldn’t even sniff 20 points the rest of the season.
Waller is not poised to bounce back in 2022
Waller’s struggles are pretty easily explained. His massive 2020 was primarily predicated on touchdowns. He scored 9 that season. His catch rate was 71.6% in 2019 and 74.8% in 2020. That fell to 59.1% in 2021 (partly due to Waller’s 8.6% drop rate). That wasn’t all his fault, though, as his catchable target rate dropped from 87% in 2019 to 80.5% in 2020 to 75% in 2019.
Even with improved quarterback play, there’s a much more pressing issue going forward: Davante Adams. Waller has been the unquestioned top pass catcher for the past three seasons on the Raiders. That role now belongs to Adams.
Improved play from Derek Carr would go a long way. Adams can contribute to that. It’s also possible, if not likely, that Waller’s efficiency increases. With all that said, volume is king, and Waller is about to lose volume. He’s still a TE1 (and a good one at that), but it seems likely that we already saw Waller’s best season in 2020.
Fantasy managers should consider Waller a top-five tight end, but we should not expect his production to rise to the difference-making levels of Kelce, 2020 Mark Andrews, or what I anticipate will be 2022 Kyle Pitts.
What is Waller’s future beyond 2022?
Waller’s long-term situation is far from concrete at the moment. He’s entering his age-30 season and is only under contract through 2023. Tight ends typically aren’t done at age 32, but there’s nothing typical about Waller’s career. The Raiders committed to Carr as their QB of the future, so we can feel confident that he’ll be under center if Waller stays in Las Vegas. Whether he does remains to be seen.
Wherever Waller ends up, I’m cautiously optimistic he can remain a highly productive tight end into his mid-30s. Given his incredible size and reliance on athletic abilities, though, I would expect him to fall off a bit sooner than more traditional tight ends. Dynasty managers should not bank on Waller’s production for more than 3-4 more years.
What can fantasy managers expect from Waller?
In the short term, I view Waller as a high-end — but not elite — TE1. Last season, Dalton Schultz was the TE5 at just 12.2 ppg. The bar is not high to be a top-five tight end. Waller should be better than that, and I expect him to be better than he was in 2021.
Look for Waller to post a season similar to 2019, but with a little less volume and a couple more touchdowns. Something like 80-85 receptions for around 1,000-1,100 yards and 5-6 touchdowns is about right. That puts him right around 13 ppg.
If you have Waller, I would consider exploring trade options. But only deal Waller if you can find someone that still values him as a 15-16 ppg guy. At 13 ppg, Waller is still a value, especially for contending dynasty teams. He just isn’t as substantial of an upgrade on a replacement TE1 as he’s perceived to be.
On the other side, if you’re looking to acquire Waller, it needs to be at below market value. He can definitely help a team in its championship window, but only pursue him if his manager isn’t overvaluing him.