Darren Waller’s remarkable journey, plus three insights from beat reporters

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Today’s NFL update:

  • 👋 Darren Waller’s remarkable journey
  • ❓ Lingering questions, possible answers
  • 🏆 Brady’s Patriots HoF induction

What Dianna’s Hearing: Darren Waller retires

After eight seasons, 87 games and three teams, Giants TE Darren Waller is retiring at age 31.

The Giants — who were not shocked by the decision — released a statement: “We have great respect for Darren as a person and player. We wish him nothing but the best.”

Jacob has more on Waller and his decision.

Why Darren Waller is leaving the NFL

In an 18-minute YouTube video yesterday, he explained that a medical emergency last November helped him realize his passion for football had “slowly been fading.”

He didn’t disclose the details, but said he spent three and a half days in the hospital. The experience caused Waller to reevaluate. He explained, “I don’t know if I really … felt great about how my life was going.”

Waller’s winding journey

Waller overcame substance abuse, a position change and a year-long suspension in the early stage of his career to last eight seasons in a league with an average career length of 2.8 years for tight ends.

In 2015’s sixth round, the Ravens drafted him out of Georgia Tech. In college, the 6-6, 240-pound wide receiver broke out in his final two games after an injury to the team’s No. 1 receiver, showing enough upside to interest scouts as a “poor man’s Kelvin Benjamin.”

He began his rookie season as the sixth wide receiver before a hamstring injury — a theme throughout his career — cost him the season.

John Harbaugh converted Waller to tight end in 2016, but the sophomore was suspended for the first four games after testing positive for a banned substance. The next year, Waller was suspended the entire season without pay for again violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.

Waller later shared on the “2nd Wind Podcast” that he overdosed while serving the suspension, concluding that the pills he’d taken were laced with Fentanyl. “I felt like I was going to die,” said Waller, who’d been just 25 at the time.

After that, Waller spent the remainder of his suspension getting sober while working 40 hours a week at a supermarket, training before and after work. In 2018, The Athletic’s Jeff Zrebiec detailed this aspect of Waller’s comeback.

Waller’s 2019 breakout in Oakland

Reinstated in August 2018, Waller was waived by the Ravens before the Raiders signed him mid-season. That season, he briefly flashed unrealized potential.

The broader NFL world met him in 2019, when “Hard Knocks” covered the Raiders’ training camp and spotlighted Waller’s battle with addiction. “When I was in Baltimore, I was like a vegetable,” said the tight end. “I was getting high literally every day. Whatever I could get my hands on.”

But as a Raider, everything looked different. He was sharp and engaged, preparing for a bigger role after Jared Cook’s departure. At the time, The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen called Waller “unguardable during camp.” Then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden called the tight end “one of the best-kept secrets in the league.”

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He was not a secret for long, catching seven passes for 70 yards in a Week 1 win. Two weeks later, he had 134 yards on 13 receptions. He had arrived, and would finish the season with 90 catches and 1,145 yards. He was a Pro Bowl alternate and ranked No. 99 on the NFL Top 100 Players list.sd

During that time, he founded the Darren Waller Foundation to “equip youth to avoid and overcome addiction to drugs and alcohol and support youth and their families during their recovery and treatment journey.”

The next season, 2020, Waller finished with career highs in receptions (107), receiving yards (1,196) and touchdowns (9). He was a Pro Bowler for the first time, and his fellow players ranked him No. 35 in their Top 100 Players list.

Waller’s injury-led decline

In 2021, injuries began mounting. Waller missed six games in 2021 and eight in 2022 before the Raiders traded him to the Giants for a third-round pick. In New York, his training camp highlights were promising — as were his healthy stretches — but hamstring injuries continued to plague him. He finished his sole season in New York with 52 catches for 552 yards.

With his retirement post-June 1, the Giants will gain $11.6 million in cap savings while eating $2.5 million in dead money in 2024 and $4.9 million in 2025. TE Daniel Bellinger is expected to receive the majority of Waller’s snaps, while rookie Theo Johnson offers promising upside.

Waller — who acknowledged he left a lot of money on the table — is ready to “start [making] choices for himself” and following his passions, which include motivational speaking and music.

Charlotte Carroll and Jeff Howe have more on Waller, who is “eternally grateful for the game of football.”

Lingering Questions: The next Waller?

With beat reporters getting insights into teams’ approaches, we are gaining hints about offseason questions. Three examples today:

1. How are teams approaching the new kickoff rules? As Paul Dehner noted this morning, Bengals special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is consumed by this question.

What’s stood out to Simmons through early trials is timing, given the large distance between returners and blockers when the ball is caught. Unlike the Chiefs, who suggested safety Justin Reid could kickoff, the Bengals plan to stick with kicker Evan McPherson — but are still investigating.

2. Is Eagles rookie WR Johnny Wilson the next Darren Waller? Wilson has a similar build (6-6, 23-plus pounds) and was also a sixth-round pick. While still in the receiver role, a position of opportunity after DeVante Parker retired, Wilson has thrived in practice.

Brooks Kubena noted that he saw the Florida State rookie “twice make superb catches while in tight coverage during OTAs and minicamp. He contorted himself nearly sideways while snagging a slant just above the turf. Then, on a deep ball along the sideline, he made a leaping grab over Isaiah Rodgers for a touchdown.” He could be the WR3 the Eagles have been missing. Maybe even a tight end?

3. Can Panthers CB Jaycee Horn stay healthy? The son of Joe Horn could be regarded among the league’s top cornerbacks if healthy, as his 0.83 yards per coverage snap is tied for eighth league-wide since 2022. But he’s missed over half (29 of 51) his games since the Panthers drafted him No. 8 in 2021, one pick before Broncos CB Pat Surtain II.

It’s promising in Carolina. As Joe Person notes in his article this morning, “Horn changed up his routine and did more weightlifting this offseason.” The new-look Panthers picked up Horn’s fifth-year option this offseason and will hope a new training regimen helps.

Around the NFL

Jets WR Garrett Wilson‘s new contract can arrive as early as next year, as the 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year is one fourth of the loaded 2022 Jets draft that included All-Pro CB Sauce Gardner, Pro Bowl DE Jermaine Johnson and star RB Breece Hall. Zack Rosenblatt shares why a significant payday could be coming for Wilson.

Chad Graff covered everything you need to know about the Patriots’ event on Wednesday for Tom Brady’s retirement (including why it’s taking place in June). Brady will become the first player to have the four-year waiting period waived for the Patriots Hall of Fame, and his No. 12 will become the first number they retire since 2000.

The Ravens roster competitions to watch include the final receiver spots, with the favorites being special teams ace Deonte Harty and experience vet Tylan Wallace. Keep an eye on Malik Cunningham, a converted quarterback who “hasn’t looked out of place at wide receiver,” per Jeff Zrebiec.

Cowboys TE Jake Ferguson has All-Pro potential, according to his teammate Micah Parsons. Jon Machota explores how the third-year pro plans to take that next step after recording 71 receptions during his first Pro Bowl season.

When speaking with the New York Post’s Ryan Dunleavy on Saturday, Jets edge Haason Reddick did not say he plans to attend mandatory minicamp this week.

Former Texans CB Steven Nelson retired from the NFL after nine seasons. He is 31 years old. After Nelson’s four interceptions last season, he had multiple offers from teams, but the former Texans captain is retiring to spend more time with his pregnant wife and pursue business ventures.

Jacob’s Picks

📕 Dynasty fantasy: draft capital. Last offseason, Mike Kashuba published an article on the impact of draft capital on fantasy hit rates. If you’re playing in any dynasty leagues, it’s worth your time to find the cutoff for each position. Running backs are the “only position with a shot in the later rounds.” (LastWordOnSports)

🎙 From college to pros (coaching edition). Mike Sando and Randy Mueller discuss the transition for coaches, as well as players who have missed OTAs and whether that matters. (The Athletic Football Show: Football GM)

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