Raiders passing offense focuses on TE Darren Waller

There was no hiding who Derek Carr’s favorite target has been so far this season.

The Las Vegas Raiders quarterback has completed 18 passes to star tight end Darren Waller through two weeks, more than double the total of any other player on the team.

Having that same kind of success might not be quite as easy this week against the New England Patriots, who are known for their ability under coach Bill Belichick to take away the No. 1 option of opposing teams.

“That’s what they do best, they try to take away your best players,” Carr said. “That’s every week we go out there, that’s what people are trying to do to Waller. … If they want to take that away, then other guys will step up. We’re into team football and not fantasy stats.”

Waller is coming off one of the most productive games of his career with 12 catches for 103 yards and a touchdown last week against New Orleans. He missed practice Thursday nursing a knee injury but is expected to play this week.

With impressive athleticism for his size, Waller presents a difficult challenge for a Patriots defense that has been one the toughest against tight ends the past two seasons.

“He’ll definitely be a problem for us,” Belichick said. “There’s not one thing you can take away from him. He does a lot things, does a lot of things well.”

The Raiders do a good job moving Waller around, making it more difficult for opponents to game plan against him. In last week’s game against the Saints, he caught passes from a traditional tight end spot, the slot, out wide and from the backfield. He has been targeted on 38.7% of Raiders passes, the highest mark in the league.

It also helps that the Raiders have more talent around him this year with speedy rookie receiver Henry Ruggs III attracting plenty of attention, as well as a strong running game led by Josh Jacobs.

“Our offensive balance right now is amazing,” Waller said. “We could see it coming from training camp and once we first got together as a team and actually started doing something, you could tell that there is a lot of guys that deserve to have opportunities to get the rock because they’re going to make things happen. … I’m just thankful that I can be part of that group, part of that balance that they can count on to make plays whenever I’m called upon. Whatever the numbers look like, that’s cool with me.”

Waller’s journey has been an inspiring one. After nearly squandering his career in Baltimore because of a drug addiction, he has now developed into one of the most dependable pieces on the Raiders.

Waller was suspended four games in 2016 and all of 2017 because of drug violations. He spent most of 2018 on the Ravens practice squad before the Raiders plucked him away late that season.

He developed into one of the top tight ends in the league last season with 90 catches for 1,145 yards that helped him earn a long-term deal with the Raiders.

Carr has called Waller “one of the best humans” in the league and the two have built a strong relationship through Bible study, card games and other off-field conversations.

“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,” Waller said. “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.”

Since the start of last season, Waller has 108 catches for 1,295 yards, second among all tight ends in that span behind only Kansas City’s Travis Kelce.

“Our job is to get him the ball,” coach Jon Gruden said. “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 (Darren) Waller is right up there with them. This is his second year playing the position, it’s astonishing what this man can do.”

NOTES: Jacobs (hip), T Trent Brown (calf), OL Denzelle Good (thumb, illness), LB Nick Kwiatkoski (pectoral) all missed practice. … Ruggs (knee, hamstring), WR Bryan Edwards (foot) and T Sam Young (groin) were limited.

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