ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) — When Darren Waller signed a multiyear contract extension worth a reported $9 million a season, he couldn't help but reflect on the journey he's been on since signing a deal in that same office a year ago to join the Oakland Raiders from Baltimore's practice squad.
A player who nearly squandered his career because of a drug addiction now has developed into someone so dependable that the Raiders want him around for the long term.
"It's incredible to me," Waller said. "It's hard for me in my mind to think what I'll be like in 2024, but I just try to let the days stack and it'll handle itself. It means a lot to me that they would do that. It's, I don't want to say disbelief, but it's just still surreal to me. I remember last year sitting in that same room signing my contract coming from Baltimore. I just didn't want to mess this up, so now to have something in place is incredible."
Waller has been one of the feel-good stories in the NFL this season as the former college wide receiver has developed into one of the league's most productive tight ends.
That transition almost never happened because of a drug addiction that Waller detailed on HBO's "Hard Knocks" this summer. Waller said he was "getting high like literally every day" during training camp in 2016 when he described himself as a "vegetable." He said he used opiates, Xanax and cocaine, leading to a pair of suspensions.
But now he's clean and fulfilling his potential in Oakland. He even celebrated his new contract by splurging on some lime Perrier water.
"Can't be more excited for a guy," offensive coordinator Greg Olsen said. "He's really the reason why you coach. I think every coach on our staff would say the same. It's just been a pleasure in the meetings, his work ethic, his preparation, certainly his athletic ability and how he's grown as a tight end coming out of college as a wide receiver, that's not an easy transition. Every facet and every aspect of his game is a great example of what a pro is and what a pro should be."
Waller was suspended for the first four games of 2016 for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. He violated it again the following year and was suspended for the entire 2017 season, leading him finally to attend rehab sessions. He said this summer that he celebrated his two-year anniversary of being clean.
Waller was reinstated in August 2018 and spent most of the season on the Ravens practice squad before being signed by the Raiders on Nov. 27. But before getting into the playbook, the Raiders made sure to develop a plan to help keep Waller clean.
He met with the player engagement staff and offensive line coach Tom Cable, whose son also dealt with drug addiction. He then showed enough in the final four games with six catches for 75 yards for the Raiders to let Jared Cook leave in free agency and make Waller their No. 1 receiving tight end.
Waller has justified that decision by recording a team-best 37 catches for 359 yards and 17 first downs over the first five games. He ranks second among all tight ends in receptions, while also developing as a competent blocker in both the running and passing game.
But Waller is more proud of a different trait that was as important to the Raiders in giving him the contract.
"I feel like it just shows that I can contribute to a team and just be someone that's reliable, can be counted on," he said. "That wasn't the case before, so I just take pride in doing that, and everything else happened. Let the results take care of itself, but I just try to be a good teammate first and foremost and be a part of the family. That's what it's all about for me."
NOTES: WR Tyrell Williams (foot) will miss his second straight game and DE Arden Key (knee) has also been ruled out for Sunday's game at Green Bay. ... RT Trent Brown is doubtful with a calf injury. ... G Gabe Jackson is questionable to make his season debut following a knee injury in training camp and return specialist Dwayne Harris (ankle) is also questionable.
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