The Raiders were the butt of many jokes a year ago. Jon Gruden came in and made some very questionable trades that sent away playmakers like Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. Through all the criticism and noise, here they are a year later with a solid, young roster that has led them to a few decent wins so far in 2019.
The offense in particular has led the way. While weak at the wide receiver position, the Raiders have fielded a strong running game and have benefited from the emergence of perhaps the strongest tight end depth chart in the NFL.
Darren Waller, Foster Moreau and Derek Carrier all shined for Oakland in Week 7 against the Packers. Smart money is on the trio coming through again in the future, too. There’s a lot of raw receiving talent there, and when all three are cooking, they’re matchup nightmares for any defense.
This season, Raiders tight ends have combined for 63 catches for 683 yards and four touchdowns. Gruden and Derek Carr are getting better at using those tight ends, which in the end helps Josh Jacobs and the league’s sixth-ranked running game.
Let’s take a look at what they’re doing and why they’re such a threat.
Waller is the best of the bunch, and one of the top TEs in the NFL
Waller’s NFL career was almost over before it began. He was suspended twice for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, including for all of 2017. But he got sober and came into this season as a breakout candidate. Not only did he live up to that hype, but he also recently got a large contract extension.
At 6‘6 and 255 pounds, Waller’s already got a size advantage over many NFL linebackers. He is so much more than a physically gifted player, though. He runs precise routes and he plays smart. Finding the hole in the defense is his specialty.
Football Outsiders has Waller rated highly among tight ends in a couple advanced metrics. He’s ranked first in DYAR, which assesses the value of the tight end’s receiving plays. He’s ranked third in DVOA, which is similar to DYAR but accounts for all plays and not just receptions. Waller also has a catch rate of 88 percent, good for fourth in the league and first at his position. He is third among tight ends with 485 receiving yards, behind only Austin Hooper and Travis Kelce.
Let’s dive into where Waller excels, with a closer look at plays from his best game yet.
Against the Packers, Waller caught seven of eight targets for 126 yards and a pair of touchdowns, his first two touchdowns in the NFL.
This play showcases his route-running and catching ability when he’s covered well. He had a defensive back on him, which evens the playing field a little bit, but not when Carr is able to throw the ball high and outside. Waller went up and pulled it down for a decent gain.
When you have a running game as strong as Oakland’s, and big-bodied players who can catch passes, it’s easy to lose sight of one of them.
Waller is very good at getting behind the secondary and finding holes in the zone. Here, he got behind everybody and caught a slightly underthrown ball from Carr. Had it been ahead of him, it surely would have been a touchdown.
Although Waller had two touchdowns on the game (and a third called back due to holding), I found some of his bigger receptions to be more interesting plays.
This is one that has a lot of the same qualities as the play above — Waller got behind the linebacker, while his receiver took the cornerback away, which also distracted the safety. It feels like every time Waller gets open, he has a good five yards of separation on all sides.
Moreau is a rookie on the rise
Moreau, a fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft, hasn’t been a major part of the Raiders’ gameplan, but when they go to him, he’s come up big. His top performance so far was catching all four of his targets against the Bears, and he also has two touchdowns on the season.
One of those touchdowns came against the Packers, and it was a tough contested catch on a slant route.
Like Waller, Moreau is not the kind of player you want a linebacker matched up on. Here, he had a defensive back on him, but he’s such a large target that Carr only had to put the ball on his inside to ensure a catch. A little extra effort from Moreau turned it into a touchdown.
I’ll keep harping on this: when you have so many receiving tight ends, it’s easy to forget about them. Doubly so when all of those tight ends’ strength comes from their route-running ability. Moreau is already showing a tendency to find holes in the defense, same as Waller.
In this play, he ran a simple underneath check-and-release drag route, and nobody was in the same zip code by the time the ball got there. Notably, the Raiders were lined up in a heavy running formation, something they can do when they have three versatile tight ends.
Forget about Carrier at your own peril
Carrier is in his eighth season in the NFL, having spent time with the Eagles, 49ers, Rams, and Washington. He’s never been a No. 1 tight end, and is usually the third guy on the depth chart. As it turns out, that’s a good spot for him, as teams are often forced to put a linebacker on him. He’s only caught seven passes this season, but he’s averaging 11 yards per catch.
Carrier had two catches in each of the Raiders’ last two games.
The Raiders weren’t showing run this time, but with four other targets running downfield, who would you commit to cover Carrier? Nobody, in the Bears’ case. Carrier easily found the hole in the zone created by his teammates, and turned upfield for a solid chunk of yardage against a tough Chicago defense.
Earlier in the season against the Chiefs, Carrier had three receptions. One of them was my favorite catch of his from this year.
The Chiefs put linebacker Darron Lee on him and all Carrier had to do was run a corner route. If Carr can put the ball on the outside, no linebacker in the league can break it up. That’s exactly what Carr did, and Carrier made the difficult catch while turning upfield for a few extra yards.
For my money, the Raiders have the best group of tight ends in the NFL. As long as the Raiders can continue to use them in creative and effective ways, the tight ends will continue to improve and find success. They’re also very important for the development and evaluation of Carr, who is still trying to prove he can be Oakland’s franchise quarterback.
Waller is the leader of the three, and his skillset certainly helps with Oakland’s lack of high-end receiving targets. Provided he can remain on the field, it will be shocking if he’s not considered up there with Travis Kelce and George Kittle in the top tight end discussion by the end of the season.
Much like the Raiders, Waller has come a long way, and he’s backed up by two guys who only make him better.