Darren Waller hasn’t even taken the field yet with the New York Giants, but he’s already expected to be the best receiver Daniel Jones has ever played with. It’s not particularly close either, given how many tight ends and wideouts the Giants have churned through during Jones’ career.
Is all the hype around Waller warranted? Let’s figure out what we can expect from the Giants’ biggest offseason acquisition.
By the numbers
Position: Tight end
Contract: Three-year, $51 million deal; $22 million guaranteed | 2023 cap hit: $4.499 million
Career to date
It wasn’t until he signed with the Las Vegas Raiders that Waller turned into the star he is today. The Baltimore Ravens drafted him as a sixth-round wide receiver in 2015, but he rarely earned playing time while also serving multiple suspensions for substance abuse. He didn’t even make the Ravens’ roster in 2018, and the Raiders poached him from Baltimore’s practice squad midway through the season.
In 2019 and 2020, Waller was one of the best tight ends in football with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He’s one of only 10 tight ends to ever accomplish that feat. Waller is also one of six tight ends to ever have a 200-yard receiving game, doing so while scoring two touchdowns against the New York Jets in 2020.
Waller made the Pro Bowl in 2020 after scoring nine touchdowns. He earned a huge target share with the Raiders lacking other serious options and finished with a franchise record 107 catches on 145 targets. He was arguably snubbed from being a second-team All-Pro that year, with the spot left vacant due to Travis Kelce receiving all 50 votes for the first team.
Waller faced knee and back injuries in 2021 that sidelined him for six games. Still, his 60.5 yards per game put him on pace for nearly 1,000 yards had he stayed healthy.
Waller spent much of 2022 on the sidelines with a hamstring injury. He finished with 28 catches for 388 yards in eight full games.
The Giants traded for Waller in March, sending the third-round pick they acquired by trading Kadarius Toney. They restructured his contract to lower his 2023 cap hit, meaning the team will be left with dead money charges should they release Waller in the next two years. After 2024, he could be cut with little repercussion.
Expectations are understandably high for Waller’s first season in blue. He’s the most notable receiver the Giants have had on their roster since trading Odell Beckham Jr. after the 2018 season, which was also the last time New York had a 1,000-yard pass catcher. Daniel Jones has also never played with a receiver who will command attention from opposing defenses like Waller will.
Injury risk aside, Waller is entering his age 31 season. It’s impossible to say whether he is still the same player he was in 2020. His production has dipped slightly the last two years, but only compared to the high bar he set for himself. Waller averaged 7.2 yards per target in 2021, slightly down from the previous season. He only saw significant playing time in eight games last year, but projected across a full season, Waller was still on pace for an impressive 824.5 receiving yards. The point being: there’s plenty of room for Waller to regress from his 2019-2020 heights and still be one of the best tight ends in football.
We’ll also have to wait and see how the Giants plan to use Waller. He had a ridiculous 28.7% target share in 2020. That’s a higher percentage than future Hall of Famer Travis Kelce has ever earned in a season. It’s hard to see the Giants force-feeding Waller in the same way, making it less likely he’ll replicate his past stat lines. Even though Waller is the top option, New York still has legitimate wide receivers in Darius Slayton and Isaiah Hodgins, as well as Saquon Barkley’s ability as a pass catcher.
The good part is that Waller has been dominant with short passes, as BBV’s Rivka Boord recently broke down. He struggled with passes in the zero to 9-yard range in 2022, though his 17 targets provide only a small sample size. For three years before then, Pro Football Focus consistently awarded him an almost perfect score in the short-passing game. Jones will likely be asked to take more shots down the field this year, but last season his average depth of target was an incredibly low 6.42 yards past the line of scrimmage.
Finally, Waller brings the massive size of a tight end that the Giants’ wide receivers are missing. Most of New York’s projected starters at wide receiver are 6-foot-1 or shorter, but Waller has the ball skills to line up on the boundary alongside them. He also has the speed to play in the slot when necessary.