Las Vegas Raiders tight end Darren Waller knows how vital 2021 will be for his team, as the Silver and Black seek to take the next step to the postseason after missing out on the proceedings each of the past four years.
Much will likely depend on how well general manager Mike Mayock can retool the roster this offseason, yet Waller is expressing plenty of confidence that Las Vegas is in for a spectacular year.
Darren Waller: ‘This year is going to be special’
Waller joined Good Morning Football on NFL Network and discussed the high expectations he and the Raiders are putting on themselves ahead of the 2021 NFL season, per Will Selva:
Credit the Raiders’ elite playmaker for not deflecting blame from his side of the ball, because it’s easy to throw Las Vegas’ sieve of a defense under the bus after yet another horrendous year in 2020.
What Waller said about the offense’s execution in the red zone is true. Despite how much of a threat he’s proven to be in the scoring area, even Waller’s nine touchdowns weren’t enough to offset the Raiders’ red zone deficiencies from last season, as they ranked 23rd with a 54.2% TD conversion rate.
Head coach Jon Gruden has done a phenomenal job dialing up plays between the 20s. The key will be to get craftier with his schemes when the Raiders are on the doorstep instead of settling for field goal attempts.
One major help would be for third-year tailback Josh Jacobs to get back to his rookie form. Jacobs saw his yards per carry dip by a full yard this past season, yet his rushing touchdowns went up from seven to 12.
It goes to show just how well Las Vegas could move the ball down the field that it had so many cracks at the red zone. Due to how poor the defense was, though, that was a necessity for the team to remain competitive.
Darren Waller can only do so much for Raiders’ 2021 playoff hopes
Derek Carr has ranked as a top-11 quarterback by Pro Football Focus’ grades in each of the past two seasons, and he has Waller to thank for that in large part, as the latter has hauled in 197 receptions for 2,341 yards in that span.
Despite the high level of play Carr has turned in and how much of a terror Waller has been in creating mismatches versus opposing defenses, the Raiders only have a 15-17 record to show for it. Again, it goes back to the defense, and some of the players Mayock has acquired that haven’t panned out to date.
Using the assets accumulated from the trade involving star pass-rusher Khalil Mack, Mayock selected Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abram in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Abram missed all but one game of his rookie year and ranked as PFF’s worst safety in 2020. Meanwhile, Ferrell is essentially Mack’s replacement and has 6.5 sacks to Mack’s 17.5 in the last two years.
Former Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette was considered a Round 1 reach in the most recent draft, and 2019 second-rounder Trayvon Mullen has yet to impress at the position either.
The reality is, Las Vegas isn’t a top-20 defense right now, or even really close to it. That’s the bare minimum threshold the unit must reach to seriously contend for the playoffs.
During the GMFB interview, Waller said, per NFL.com’s Nick Shook, that the defense will benefit from playing a “simpler scheme.”
“I feel like we’re right there outside of a few plays even the defense would agree can’t happen,” Waller said.
The hope is all these marquee defensive players can grow together and evolve to help the Raiders better compete in the AFC West. That’ll be no easy task given their shaky track record and the fact that they’ll have to square off with opposing signal-callers Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert for an entire quarter of the 2021 schedule.
None of that is Waller’s department. It’s on Mayock to get the right pieces that fit new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s Cover 3 scheme, and it’s on the incumbent young players to step up.
Otherwise, Waller’s bold prediction that 2021 will be special for Las Vegas will ultimately fall flat — regardless of his extraordinary individual efforts.