Green Bay Packers

Is Darren Waller Worth the Risk For the Packers?

Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, I wrote that the Green Bay Packers shouldn’t trade for an expensive veteran receiver. The best path is to look for affordable talent through the draft — and that’s still true. But the Packers may find a middle ground if they can trade for Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller, as Cheesehead TV reported they are interested in doing. Waller is 29 years old and has some injury history, which is concerning, but he would come much cheaper than top wide receivers, and he has a track record of high-level play.

It’s a matter of cost. A receiver like Deebo Samuel or D.K. Metcalf would cost multiple high draft picks and demand a contract that would easily surpass $20 million per season. The draft compensation shouldn’t be more than a second-rounder for a tight end like Waller. Even if he wants a new deal, an actual average per year would be around $11 million at most. It’s a good way to mitigate the offensive weaponry need and dilute the pressure over a rookie receiver without the prohibitive cost of the top wideouts.

According to The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, Waller was part of Green Bay’s plans when they traded Davante Adams to the Raiders. However, a tweak in the 2020 CBA makes it illegal to include player compensation in a trade for a franchise-tagged player. Therefore, the Raiders needed to compensate the Packers only with draft picks. But the core conceit of that deal has remained in Brian Gutekunst’s mind, and he is still trying to pull the trigger before or during this week’s draft.

The initial report was that the Packers were trying to get Waller and the 22nd-overall pick. So it’s possible to project that a new trade involving the tight end would have a similar valuation. If Green Bay can get Waller for a second-round pick, it could be a great pickup, even if it has some risk because of Waller’s history.

Waller was drafted as a wide receiver by the Baltimore Ravens in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. He barely played in his first season and was placed on injured reserve with a tweaked hamstring. Waller had two suspensions for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy in the following two seasons, which compromised his transition from receiver to tight end.

Waller has since stated that he suffered mental issues because of the pressure he put on himself to perform at a high level. After he completed a rehabilitation program and was reinstated, the Ravens released him and placed him on their practice squad. The Raiders saw an opportunity and signed him.

Under then-coach Jon Gruden, Waller developed into one of the best tight ends in football. After a modest first season in Oakland, he broke out in 2019 with 90 receptions for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. His 2020 season was even better, totaling 107 receptions for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns as Derek Carr’s primary receiving weapon.

Waller battled health issues last season. He had back injuries and played in 11 of the 17 games, with 665 yards and two touchdowns. While Waller is a high-end talent, the off-field issues, injury history, and his decline in production last season could be concerning. But he would be an immediate upgrade for the Packers at tight end, and the cost wouldn’t preclude them from adding young receivers.

A specific connection is important for the Packers as well. New special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia was the Raiders’ interim head coach for most of last season, so he knows Waller well enough to inform the front office about his character and how he acts in the locker room.

Even if you consider tight end is not that big of a need for the Packers compared to wide receiver, Waller is a nice fit. He has a background and plays like a receiver, which complements what the Packers have in blocking tight end Marcedes Lewis and H-back type Josiah Deguara.

The draft is the best place to find cheap talent, but a trade for Waller is a perfect way to add a veteran pass-catcher with a controlled cost without taking away the chance for the Packers to build for the future.

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