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What can the Giants expect from Darren Waller?

Comparing his play to the other great NFL tight ends

NFL: Preseason-Carolina Panthers at New York Giants John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The single biggest reason for Giants fans to be optimistic about the team’s offense heading into the 2023 season is the off-season acquisition of tight end Darren Waller. (Waller + Tre Hawkins III seems like a decent return for Kadarius Toney, right?) Waller was available after his last two seasons were compromised by injuries, but in the two seasons before that he had been an elite receiver.

Ted Nguyen of The Athletic took a great look at how Waller gets open so often against different types of coverage.

Waller uses speed to win against linebackers and even safeties and strength to defeat cornerbacks who try to play press man coverage on him. On his best days, none of what the defense does works.

Look at his stats against various defenders in the Raiders’ 2020 31-28 victory over the New York Jets. This game is best known for the Jets’ inexplicable call of Cover 0 defense that left wide receiver Henry Ruggs in single coverage for the winning score on the final play of the game. It was however Waller’s best game as a pro:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Waller had 13 receptions in 16 targets for 200 yards (including 106 YAC), nine first downs, and two touchdowns. He was covered at various times by two different linebackers, two different safeties, and two different cornerbacks. None of it mattered, because Waller succeeded against them all.

This game wasn’t an isolated occurrence, either. The Jets game was followed by four games to close the season in which Waller put up 75, 150, 112, and 117 yards. Here are the coverage matchups for the second of those games, against the Los Angeles Chargers:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Pretty much the same thing. Cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers, all having little luck stopping him.

It’s not always that way. Teams with good secondaries can sometimes shut him down, if they make that a priority. Here are Waller’s stats from Week 3 of 2020 against the New England Patriots:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

McCourty, Jackson, Gilmore, and Jones aren’t your garden-variety secondary, they were among the best in the business when they played together. As reported by the Patriots’ SB Nation site Pats Pulpit:

Waller came into the game as the biggest offensive threat for the Raiders. He dominated on Monday night, and was a huge area of concern heading into Week 3. The Patriots, as they usually do, focused on him and shut him down, though. Overall, he finished with two catches for nine yards, and was a complete non-factor all game. New England achieved this by throwing a ton of different players at him. Joejuan Williams, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and even Stephon Gilmore, had a chance to take him on.

This is why it is important that Waller not be a one-man band for the Giants’ offense in 2023. Teams may (understandably) concentrate on taking him away from the offense. When they do, it will be important for Parris Campbell, Jalin Hyatt, Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins, and Daniel Bellinger to make them pay.

In what follows, we compare Waller’s performance for his two healthy starting seasons, 2019 and 2020, against the other elite tight ends in the NFL to get a sense of where he stands and what his relative strengths and weaknesses are.


Here are Waller’s PFF grades and stats for his breakout year, 2019, compared to his peers:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

and the same for 2020:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Waller was an elite route-runner (86.8 RECV grade) in 2019, and he then took it up a notch in 2020 (90.9, second only to Travis Kelce). Note also that Waller is a YAC machine, finishing second to George Kittle in 2019 and leading all tight ends in 2020.

Among the top tight ends, Waller has been most like Travis Kelce in versatility, moving freely from slot to wide to in-line. For some reason Waller lined up in-line in 2020 a lot more than in 2019, and almost as much as George Kittle. The difference is that Kittle is a very good pass blocker, and Waller (like most of the elite TEs) is not.

Of course you can pass to a tight end lined up in-line, but Waller was actually used to pass block 70 times in 2020. That tied for 11th among all tight ends. His 58.2 pass blocking grade suggests that wasn’t a great idea. Rob Gronkowski, who un-retired in 2020 to join Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, was the only one of the elite TE group to be used in pass blocking more often (76 times) and in general was used like a traditional tight end, lining up in-line 82.3 percent of the time. Mark Andrews is the other outlier, working from the slot more than 60 percent of the time and spending few snaps in-line. Andrews was only asked to pass block four times all season.

With the Giants, expect a lot of 12 personnel looks with Daniel Bellinger usually being the in-line TE and Waller lining up as a wideout or slot more often than not. That said, Nguyen shows an example of Jon Gruden using Waller in a jumbo (three TE) package that drew the safety up tight with play action called to allow Waller to sprint past the safety for a touchdown reception. Anyone want to bet we see Mike Kafka do this at least once in 2023?

Man vs zone coverage

Here is the performance of the tight ends against man vs. zone coverage, first for 2019:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

and then for 2020:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The best of the best among tight tends (Kelce, Waller, Kittle, Gronkowski) feast when they see man coverage, all of them grading near or above 90 in getting open (RECV grade). The others have been good but not great against man. Zone coverage tends to be the equalizer for defenses, but it wasn’t for Kittle in 2019 or for Kelce in 2020. Waller isn’t quite as effective against zone but still very good.

Route depth and location

All of the elite tight ends were outstanding route runners on deep (20+ yards) patterns in 2019 :

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

and in 2020:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

with the exception of Dallas Goedert in 2019. The one thing to note about Waller, though, is although he runs great deep routes, he wasn’t asked to do so all that often and he has not been great at catching the deep ball (DROP grade).

Of more interest is how dominant Waller has been on intermediate (10-20 yards) and short (0-10 yards) routes, especially to the middle of the field. Here are his breakdowns for 2020. The numbers represent receptions/targets (drops), yards (YAC), TDs, INTs, NFL passer rating. (Note also that the upper right corner box is in error - Waller had numbers of 5/7 (0), 137/18, 1, 0, and 153.0 when targeted deep outside right.)

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

That skill of getting open on intermediate routes in the middle of the field matches up well with Daniel Jones’ excellent 2022 86.6 PFF grade on throws to that part of the field (7.1 points above the league average):

Data from 2023 PFF Quarterback Annual

Nguyen reports that Jones was only 27th in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per dropback on passes in the middle of the field in 2022, though, which suggests that his receivers weren’t helping him much there. He expects that to change with Waller, who ranked second in the NFL in EPA per target between the numbers in 2019-2020, now a Giant.

Waller was also excellent on deep routes down either sideline in 2020 (87.2 and 99.9 route running grades), but didn’t see the ball much on such routes. Jones’ 2022 PFF grade was 6.6 points above the league average on deep routes down the left sideline and an impressive 16.8 points above the league average on outside deep routes - but as we know, Jones threw deep much less often than other quarterbacks last season, whether because of the lack of pass protection, the inability of receivers to get open, or both. Jones to Waller deep on the outside might be something to watch out for in 2023 if the offensive line gives Jones more time to throw than they did in 2022.

Waller is not Kelce. No one is. But Nguyen says he has some of the same skills, and with Mike Kafka as his offensive coordinator, Waller will get the chance to do more of what Kelce does to exploit defenses:

In Kansas City, Reid and Kafka gave Kelce a lot of freedom to alter his routes and space hunt. Though Waller won’t get Kelce’s long leash, he’ll get to run plenty of option routes in this offense. It’s something he progressively improved on in former Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s offense.

Option routes aren’t the only form of agency that Waller has. Waller can get creative with how he runs locked routes as long as he gets to where he needs to on time. Waller has even had influence with altering the playbook.

“We were running a concept,” Kafka said earlier this offseason. “(Waller) saw an opportunity for a complementary route off of it. You know, we talked to the quarterback room, receiver room, tight end room, and now you know now it’s a commonly known part of the offense.”

This seems to be the realization of what Waller told reporters at OTAs in the spring:

“Yeah, they value our opinions here,” Waller said Thursday of his new environment with the Giants. “As a player, I feel like a lot of places I’ve gone, you’re told to do things a certain way and you do those things. But here it’s like, they ask a lot of questions. They want to know what you’re thinking, what do you like to do more.

Whenever I watch the Chiefs play, I always wonder, how does Kelce get so wide open? The defense knows the ball’s coming to him. Maybe Giants fans will be wondering the same thing about Darren Waller this fall.

Waller as a decoy

The threat of Darren Waller as a mismatch receiver in all part of the field has another effect on defenses - opening things up for the other receivers. We saw this at least twice in the pre-season game against Carolina. On the opening drive Jones threw to Waller four times in the first seven plays with three completions for 30 yards (it would have been four but Vonn Bell dislodged the ball after a hard hit on Waller on one of them).

Then on first-and-10 from the Carolina 29, the Giants had Waller and Bellinger in a double wing, with an RPO called for Jones. Bellinger went to the flat, Waller cleared out the right side on a drag route, and Isaiah Hodgins ran a drag route into the vacated space downfield for a 20 yard gain with no defender within five yards of him:

Then on second down from the four, Waller motioned inside Bellinger and headed for the end zone at the snap while Bellinger blocked the edge defender. Waller drew attention from two defenders, Bellinger slid off his block and got an easy touchdown:

The threat that Darren Waller poses with his size, speed, and route running ability, when combined with the speed that the Giants now have at wide receiver and the ability of their other tight ends to catch passes, has the potential to make their 2023 offense seem like one big game of whack-a-mole to opposing defenses when placed into the hands of mad scientists Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka. If the offensive line can hold up so that Jones can target all three levels of the field, things could get very interesting.