Paul Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer 41d

Raiders tight end Darren Waller knows 'rent is due every day'

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Darren Waller is not going to sneak up on anyone. Not anymore.

Not after the tight end caught 107 passes in 2020, setting a Las Vegas Raiders single-season franchise record and eclipsing the 104 receptions Hall of Fame receiver Tim Brown had in 1997. Not after leading the Raiders with 1,196 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns. And not after being named to his first career Pro Bowl.

Indeed, Waller is among the elite tight ends in the NFL now, rubbing elbows with Kansas City's Travis Kelce and San Francisco's George Kittle. Pretty heady times for a guy who continues his daily work for sobriety while maintaining an even keel about himself.

So, given his path, how hard, or how easy, would it be for him to coast after last season's accolades?

"I feel like it's hard not to coast, you know what I'm saying? That's just human nature," Waller said. "We do things for a while and naturally we want to be like, 'OK, I got this, I got this figured out.' Realizing this game isn't going to give me anything, I'm not entitled to anything just because I've put a couple of years together.

"Like people say, 'Rent is due every day.' I still have to show up and work just as hard just to put myself in positions because I still can't control the results at the end of the day. I still can't control a lot of things, but I can always control my effort, my preparation, my attitude. Those are the things I try to control. Me being somebody the team wants to look to as a leader with this franchise, I want to display qualities that are admirable and that young players can look at and see like, OK, he's really doing it. He's really walking the walk. He's not just talking it or resting on his laurels."

The play of Waller, whose great-grandfather was legendary jazz musician Fats Waller, has been music to the Raiders' ears since they signed him off the Baltimore Ravens' practice squad on Nov. 26, 2018.

Because after catching six passes for 75 yards in four games in 2018, Waller served notice in 2019 with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three TDs. Last season's statement was proof the prior year was no fluke as Waller joined the late Todd Christensen as just the second tight end in franchise history to author multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons (Christensen had three such years, in 1983, 1984 and 1986).

Combined with Waller's inspiring tale of battling and, since Sept. 14, 2017, overcoming addiction, Raiders coach Jon Gruden has called Waller  "one of the great stories in football, one of the great things I've seen in my career ... giving other young people the same enthusiasm to beat it, the same confidence that they can beat whatever addiction that you might have."

Last March, Waller started a foundation to help people battle addiction to drugs and alcoholism by treating them and their families during recovery.

"For me, I feel like that giving back component really keeps me [stay] sharp because I know that that's the greatest feeling that I can feel is to help somebody else, or be impactful in somebody else's community or spirit influence," Waller said. "So, I really want to do that. And just staying on top of my routine, meditating, praying, writing in my journals still, going to meetings still. Just doing what I've been doing, keeping me built up.

"Because without those things, my career doesn't sustain. I have to continue to dance with what brought me here and that's taking care of me -- internally, mentally, spiritually, emotionally -- and then you get the best version of me on the football field, when I'm taking care of those things. So, I just stay on top of my daily routines."

And when it comes to the X's and O's of Gruden's offense, Waller should become even more of a red zone target -- six of his nine TDs last year were inside the 10-yard line, including five from 5 yards or less -- for a unit that added receivers John Brown and Willie Snead IV and running back Kenyan Drake to go with fellow Pro Bowler Josh Jacobs.

"When you have a multitude of guys to cover on the field, it stretches the defense real thin, so you got a guy like Darren Waller, who's obviously a red zone threat, [or] Henry Ruggs III, Hunter Renfrow," Drake said. "We have a lot of guys, especially everybody in this room that can create mismatches and come out the backfield. It's almost like a pick your poison type of situation."

Waller may begin to command more coverage. He's the sixth tight end in NFL history to get at least 100 catches in a season. He also has 10 100-yard receiving games since the start of the 2019 season, the most such games among NFL tight ends during that time.

So how does he combat more defensive attention?

"It's watching even more tape. ... I can get my eyes and hands on, just look at any little thing I can do to improve my game, the smallest details," Waller said. "It's really just diving in deeper than I ever have before and realizing that if I want to continue to have a successful career, the steps to doing that are infinite.

"There's never a chance for me to just kick back and just cruise on auto pilot. I always have to make sure that the same work ethic I came in with when the team first claimed me, I have to continue to approach the game with that sense of urgency."

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