If a casual football fan had to name the New York Giants’ pass-catchers, the name that would most likely come up first is new tight end Darren Waller. The former member of the Las Vegas Raiders was in the conversation as a top-five tight end in the NFL before injuries limited his play over the last two seasons.
Now with the Giants, Waller leads a receiving and tight end corps that is otherwise littered with potential but not necessarily previous results. In lieu of the top-tier receiver that was not realistically available this offseason, Joe Schoen acquired a tight end with the ability to pose a similar matchup nightmare.
Still, there is a reason that Waller’s price tag was just a third-round pick. Obviously, his contract had something to do with it; per Over the Cap, he still has $11 million in guaranteed money on his contract, and it was originally a 2023 guarantee prior to his restructure. Another reason, though, was his injuries.
Now entering his age-31 season, Waller is somewhat of an unknown. His talent was undeniable, but is it still there? Or has age taken its toll, rendering him far from the dynamic weapon he once was?
Despite Waller’s reputation as a top-notch tight end, in actuality, he has had only two truly dominant full seasons in the league. Drafted in the sixth round in 2015, Waller spent two years for the Ravens and was hit with two drug suspensions, one of which was for the entire 2017 season.
After his reinstatement, the Raiders claimed him from the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad, but he played in just four games in 2018. However, from 2019-20, Waller caught 197 balls on 262 targets for 2,341 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2020.
2021 was the first year where injuries came up for Waller. He dealt with knee and back issues and missed six games, including five of the last six. He did return for the Raiders’ playoff game against the Bengals and caught seven balls on 12 targets for 76 yards. Overall on the season, he posted 55 receptions on 93 targets for 665 yards and two touchdowns.
The injury bug hit Waller hard in 2022. He played in just nine games, including a stint on injured reserve from Weeks 6-14. He posted 28 receptions on 43 targets for 388 yards and three touchdowns.
The question is if Waller’s 2022 season is indicative of a future decline, foreshadowing of more injury issues, or simply a blip on the radar screen. This could be one of the most important factors affecting the Giants’ passing game in 2023.
By the numbers
ESPN Analytics has a Receiver Score metric that they use to track receivers and tight ends. The overall score breaks down into three components: open, catch, and yards after catch (YAC) scores.
Waller did not qualify in 2022 due to his injuries, but here were his metrics and rankings from 2019-21.
- 2019: 60 open - 57 catch - 51 YAC - 60 overall (6th out of 27)
- 2020: 73 open - 68 catch - 50 YAC - 73 overall (1st out of 27)
- 2021: 52 open - 39 catch - 45 YAC - 44 overall (14th out of 24)
That would seem to indicate a significant slide in 2021. For comparison, let’s look at his per-game and efficiency metrics (adding in 2022 for good measure).
Darren Waller 2019-22
It does stand out fairly quickly that Waller’s drop rate increased and his overall efficiency decreased in 2021-22 compared to 2019-20, especially in 2022. His dynamism with the ball in his hands was seemingly down. Is Waller no longer the threat he once was?
The way the Raiders used Waller changed somewhat in 2022. As a converted receiver who had 4.46 speed coming out of college, he was a natural to line up at receiver at times, particularly in the slot. However, Waller’s slot usage sharply increased in 2022; after rates of 30.7%, 20.4%, and 28.8% from 2019-21, which were all below average for tight ends, he lined up in the slot 61.9% of the time in 2022, the third-highest rate at the position.
Waller’s production out of the slot was also diminished in 2022. From 2019-20, Waller posted PFF grades of 83.5 and 90.1 in the slot, which were both in the top four among tight ends. In 2021, that dropped to 73.3, which ranked ninth. In 2022, he fell further to 68.8, which ranked 12th. In other words, when Waller lined up most frequently in the slot, his productivity declined. However, is that merely a symptom of a greater decline in Waller’s play?
What does that mean for the Giants? Waller practiced almost exclusively with the receivers during OTAs, which likely means that the Giants plan on using him there. But should they shift back to his prior norms of playing more outside receiver and inline tight end than just in the slot?
Short area of the field
Besides injuries, there may have been other factors involved in Waller’s 2022 slide. His 13.5 ADOT indicates that he was being targeted far downfield, a significant jump from his career norms. Among 36 tight ends with at least 35 targets, Waller’s ADOT was the highest. His 7.4% rate of running corner routes tied for fourth among tight ends, while both his 12.1% post-route rate and 26.4% go-ball rate were first.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Waller’s numbers fell. He had never recorded an ADOT higher than 9.8 prior to 2022. Waller’s 15 targets of 20+ yards were the most among tight ends despite having only 43 total targets; his 35.7% deep rate was by far the highest.
However, according to Pro Football Focus, Waller actually performed quite well on those deep balls. He was second among tight ends with a 99.3 PFF deep grade, hauling in seven of 15 targets for 182 yards and two touchdowns. Maybe the ADOT was not a leading issue, after all.
Interestingly, Waller also performed well in the intermediate part of the field, per PFF. He had only eight targets in the 10-to-19-yard range, but he caught seven of them for 122 yards, good for a ninth-ranked 97.3 PFF grade.
Waller struggled in the zero-to-nine-yard range. His 71.0 PFF grade in that area ranked second-to-last among tight ends, as he caught 12 of 17 targets for 82 yards and one touchdown. His 6.8 yards per reception ranked fourth-lowest, primarily due to a last-ranked 1.6 YAC per reception. He also dropped two of 17 short targets, a last-ranked 14.3% rate.
This was the main reason that Waller’s performance dipped over the last couple of seasons. Compare his 71.0 PFF grade in the short part of the field to the previous three years.
- 2021: 92.8 PFF grade (13th), 323 yards, 9.5 yards per reception, two touchdowns, 4.7 YAC per reception (15th), 10.5% drop rate (fourth-worst)
- 2020: 97.9 PFF grade (2nd), 622 yards, 9.6 yards per reception, three touchdowns, 5.7 YAC per reception (4th), 1.5% drop rate (10th-best)
- 2019: 95.6 PFF grade (T-4th), 539 yards, 9.3 yards per reception, two touchdowns, 5.4 YAC per reception (T-8th), 4.9% drop rate (22nd)
Waller brought tremendous value in the short area from 2019-21, but that disappeared in 2022. Considering that Daniel Jones targets that area of the field very frequently (48.7%, tied for fifth-most among quarterbacks), the Giants are likely counting on Waller to be a short-area threat. Why did his numbers decline?
As much as a quarterback relies on his receivers, the receivers are also at the mercy of their quarterback. Derek Carr had one of the worst years of his career in 2022, as his 66.6 PFF grade was his lowest since his rookie season. This could explain at least a portion of Waller’s struggles.
However, the truth is that Carr was never that great in the short area of the field. From 2019-22, he ranked 20th, 29th, 28th, and 18th in PFF grade on short throws. In fact, his 2022 grade of 70.7 was the best of his four seasons. Therefore, Waller’s biggest struggle was not necessarily correlated with Carr’s.
Over the last four seasons, Waller has graded out very well against man coverage. His lowest PFF grade against man was 77.4 in 2021, which ranked fifth among tight ends. In 2019-20 and 2022, Waller posted grades of 89.2, 93.4, and 90.8 when guarded in man, leading tight ends twice.
However, his zone coverage results have fallen off over the last two seasons. In 2019-20, his zone grades were 82.9 and 78.4, which ranked seventh and sixth among tight ends, respectively. In 2021-22, though, those grades slipped to 71.6 and 66.5, which ranked 12th and 15th.
Why did Waller falter against zone? Well, part of it may be drops. In 2019-20, Waller’s drop rates against zone coverage were 4.5% and 3.0%, respectively; they jumped to 6.7% in 2021 and 7.1% in 2022. However, each of those rates was on just one drop.
It also seems inaccurate to call Waller’s 2022 raw stats against zone a decline. He caught 13 of 17 zone targets (76.5%) for 162 yards at 12.5 yards per reception. His 1.26 yards per route run ranked 22nd, though, indicating reduced efficiency. Furthermore, his 2.7 YAC per reception against zone ranked last among tight ends, compared to his far more respectable 4.4 mark against man.
Still, in 2021, Waller posted 1.93 yards per route run against zone, the sixth-highest mark among tight ends, and his 4.3 YAC per reception was also far better than in 2022. In that season, it does seem that his four drops against zone coverage were what depressed his PFF grade.
These numbers paint a sobering picture of expectations for Waller in 2023. Although his decline was sharpest in 2022, he was already far less dominant in 2021 than in 2019-20. Injuries likely played a role, but to what extent? Even if injuries were the main culprit, what are the chances that the 31-year-old remains healthy this season?
The lower YAC numbers and reduced slot efficiency could indicate a lost step. They could also be injury-based. There is no way to know definitively. Regardless, lining Waller up in the slot on over 60% of his snaps may not be ideal, as he was far more productive at half that rate.
The short area of the field could be Waller’s litmus test. As stated earlier, Jones loves throwing the ball there. Will Waller be able to feast in that area under 10 yards as a security blanket? Or will he have problems with drops and a low catch rate, as well as an inability to move the ball after the catch?
While acquiring Waller was a low-risk, high-reward move, he should not be the clear No. 1 pass-catching target. Until proven otherwise, Giants fans should assume that they are not getting the star Waller from 2019-20. That does not mean he will be useless, but the numbers indicate that it is possible his skills have declined.
Could Waller still be a star? Yes. Will he be? Time will tell. My guess is that if he can stay reasonably healthy, he will be an above-average but not star-level tight end. It’s not about his specific statistics but more the threat that he poses to a defense. Will he tax them both horizontally and vertically?
What do you think, Giants fans? What are your expectations for Waller in 2023?