Bill Belichick: Raiders' Darren Waller going to be 'big challenge' for Patriots

LAS VEGAS -- How impressive was Darren Waller's breakout performance in the Las Vegas Raiders' 34-24 defeat of the New Orleans Saints on Monday Night Football?

It even got the notoriously stingy-with-his-words Hoodie talking. A lot. Well, a lot for him.

"Yeah, he's going to be a, yeah, he's a big challenge," New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the Raiders tight end on a conference call Tuesday morning.

"Really impressed with everything he does. You know, he's a very competitive blocker, got great size, got great quickness for his size, catches the ball very well. You know, he can really, he can run all the routes. Is really a very versatile player, talented, that shows good toughness and very competitive guy. So, yeah, he'll definitely be a problem for us. There's not any one thing you can take away from him. He does a lot of things, does a lot of things well."

For those counting at home, that's 96 words and 40 seconds that Belichick used to praise Waller. Or, eight words for every catch Waller had against the Saints.

With his 12 catches -- one off his career high set last season at Minnesota -- for 103 yards and a 1-yard touchdown to give the Raiders a third-quarter lead they would not relinquish, Waller served notice that he will no longer sneak up on anybody. Least of all the Patriots, who, at 1-1, play host to the 2-0 Raiders on Sunday.

Now, after catching 90 passes for 1,145 yards and three TDs and being a Pro Bowl alternate a season ago, Waller is no unknown. It's just that there are so many high-profile players at the position throughout the league.

"Darren's a great player," said Raiders coach Jon Gruden. "Our job is to get him the ball.

"I've said this before -- I'd take him out of any tight ends, and I know [George] Kittle and [Travis] Kelce are as good as they get, but Waller is right up there with them. This is his second year playing the position. It's astonishing what this man can do."

Indeed, Waller is a converted receiver whose fight against addiction and aspiration for sobriety are as chilling as they are inspiring.

Especially with Waller nearly setting a Monday Night Football record for most catches by a tight end on the evening the show celebrated its 50th birthday. Waller's 12 receptions were one behind the 13 new teammate Jason Witten had for the Dallas Cowboys against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 1, 2012, and one ahead of Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who had 11 catches for the Kansas City Chiefs against the New England Patriots on Dec. 4, 2000.

Even with Raiders quarterback Derek Carr spreading the ball around against the Saints -- 11 different players caught a pass -- Waller was his guy with a career-high 16 targets.

"I think you know how much I love him," Carr said of Waller. "He did an exceptional job. I hope everyone gets to see everything about Darren Waller that we know him to be. He's not only one of the best players in the NFL -- he's one of the best humans. Love that guy. Love that player. I'm glad to be his quarterback. I'm honored."

The feeling is mutual.

"It started right when I first came back to the team in 2018," Waller said of his connection with Carr. "In Bible-studying environments, just me being open about things I was going through, and working with me and not judging me in any way. I feel like from there it was a thing where I didn't want to let him down, and I wanted to be there for him because I knew he was there for me. It's been there ever since.

"It kind of developed from there -- once that was there it was kind of easy to translate to the field. Hanging out and playing card games together, things like that carried over to the field and we just put the work in."

And now, it's paying off. And getting Belichick to talk. A lot. For him, anyway.