IT WAS 11 A.M. on a Tuesday, less than 24 hours after tight end Darren Waller and his wife, WNBA star Kelsey Plum, had returned to Las Vegas from their honeymoon in Turks and Caicos.
Waller, who missed most of last season because of a left hamstring injury, had just wrapped a routine physical therapy session when Las Vegas Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler’s name unexpectedly popped up on his cellphone.
Ziegler told him he was being traded to the New York Giants for a third-round pick.
“I did not see this coming,” Waller said the day after being traded. “I was getting ready to just do everything I could to make myself available for the Raiders and get ready for everything that was going to start in mid-April. It caught me off guard, but it’s the nature of the business.”
Just 186 days after Ziegler and first-year coach Josh McDaniels signed Waller to a three-year, $51 million extension that made him one of the highest-paid tight ends in the NFL, he was gone. His $17 million per season is the most for a tight end in NFL history. San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle is second at $15 million per season.
Waller’s 3,394 receiving yards is third-best among tight ends since 2019, behind only the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Travis Kelce and the Baltimore Ravens‘ Mark Andrews. From 2019 to 2020 — Waller’s last fully healthy season — his 2,341 receiving yards put him behind only Kelce (2,645). Waller and Kelce were the only two tight ends with more than 1,700 receiving yards in that span.
But Waller, who turns 31 in September, has missed a combined 14 games over the past two seasons with various injuries.
Waller insisted he was doing everything he could to get back on the field this past season. It is unclear when exactly Waller’s health became a concern for the Raiders, but ultimately it led to their decision to trade him.
“Obviously, Darren was a big part of what our plan was, obviously by the contract he signed,” Raiders owner Mark Davis said at last month’s annual league meeting. “Things didn’t work out last year, just based on health. You know, we didn’t quite get the Darren Waller that could have really helped us even more.”
The Raiders received an offer for a second-round pick from the Green Bay Packers ahead of the Nov. 1 deadline, a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations confirmed to ESPN. The Miami Dolphins also had interest in trading for the tight end, the source confirmed.
But the Raiders opted to keep Waller at the deadline, though he hadn’t played since Oct. 2 and wouldn’t make his return until Dec. 18.
Even as recently as the NFL combine in February, McDaniels insisted Waller would be a part of the Raiders’ future.
“I know Darren fought through a lot of injuries and those types of things last year. But I have a great deal of confidence in Darren Waller,” McDaniels said. “I felt like he ended the season the right way, really playing well. Still, you know, fast, explosive, great teammate, very smart. And he’ll be a big part of what we’re going to do going forward.”
But behind closed doors, front office sources told ESPN, the Raiders and Giants met at the combine in Indianapolis to orchestrate the trade that would send Waller to New York two weeks later.
WHILE THE RAIDERS warmed up inside Allegiant Stadium for a preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings on Aug. 14, Waller was dressed in street clothes. A mile down the Las Vegas Strip at the Michelob Ultra Arena inside Mandalay Bay, Waller sat courtside as Plum helped lead the Las Vegas Aces past the Seattle Storm in their regular-season finale.
Waller hadn’t practiced with the team since July 30 as he rehabbed a right hamstring injury. The Raiders granted him permission to attend the Aces game — Davis owns both franchises.
Waller had been a regular at Aces games all season, but his relationship with Plum, which started earlier in the year, was kept largely under wraps. McDaniels downplayed Waller’s absence from the preseason game, telling reporters at the time, “He wasn’t going to play today, so I don’t want to make more of that than it was.”
Waller was ready for the start of the season, but injured his left hamstring in a Week 5 loss to the Chiefs. He left that contest after six plays and spent the second half on the sideline in street clothes.
The Raiders were hoping Waller would utilize the team’s Week 6 bye to jump-start his rehab and be ready for the next game given the extended time off. But Waller had other plans.
Former NFL executive Mike Lombardi — whose son, Mick, is Raiders offensive coordinator — recounted in a March 16 episode of his podcast, The GM Shuffle, that the Raiders “redid your contract and on the bye week, instead of rehabbing, you went home for four days and accrued the fines. On the bye week, you went home and just didn’t talk to anybody. Just went home and left a message saying ‘Hey, fine me. I don’t care. I’m going to Southern California.”
Though he didn’t tell the team at the time, Waller felt he had good reason to step away. He took Plum to San Diego on Oct. 13, and while on a hike at Torrey Pines to the beach, he asked her to marry him.
Much like the courtship and wedding, it was Waller’s desire to keep this trip quiet, even if it meant having to leave Las Vegas for a few days while trying to rehab the injured hamstring.
The injury kept him out for 10 weeks.
“It was something I wanted to keep ultimately completely private from the team,” Waller said on the AP Pro Football podcast. “So the Thursday through Sunday that we’re mandated to get off by the league, that is when I proposed to Kelsey. So I was going there and didn’t really want to share with anyone.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m just going here, and that is where I’m going to be because you’re mandated to get off Thursday through Sunday.’ That’s what I did. I eventually told Josh and that’s how he knew.”
The relationship between Waller and McDaniels and Ziegler wasn’t contentious, but it became “rocky” following the negotiations for Waller’s extension, according to a source close to Waller.
Waller believed he was doing everything he could to get back onto the field. All the hard work in the previous offseasons that got him to the Pro Bowl level, he said, might have backfired, resulting in the two injury-riddled seasons.
Privately, the Raiders were noncommittal to Waller about keeping him after deciding not to trade him at the deadline, according to sources close to the situation.
The first conversations around Waller being traded to the Giants came at the combine in late February/early March, according to a team source. At that point, it became evident to Giants general manager Joe Schoen the tight end could be had for the right price.
Schoen said this was an avenue he explored because of the lack of high-end wide receivers in free agency. The Giants needed a No. 1 receiver to complement quarterback Daniel Jones after giving him a massive new contract before the start of free agency. A dynamic tight end via trade, they determined, was one of the best options.
Schoen left the combine believing acquiring Waller was a realistic possibility, according to a team source. So they did their homework, calling ex-coaches, ex-teammates and personnel who had worked directly with the veteran tight end.
Waller received positive reviews, according to sources with knowledge of the Giants’ process. Retired tight end Lee Smith, as well as a member of the Las Vegas training staff, were among those interviewed. Ziegler and the Raiders were supportive of the conversations in order to facilitate the trade.
There was even a conversation between a member of Waller’s camp and the Giants shortly before the deal was finalized to gauge how receptive the Pro Bowler would be coming to New York and how he would fit with the team.
It was determined by everyone involved it would be a good match, if the teams could agree on compensation. The Giants were only willing to offer a third-round pick. In fact, it was their second third-round pick, which was almost a fourth-rounder considering it was a compensatory selection New York obtained from the Chiefs in the trade for wide receiver Kadarius Toney prior to last year’s deadline.
The Raiders and Ziegler looked for a better offer. Schoen wouldn’t budge on the price, and Las Vegas eventually agreed to the terms in the middle of the free agent negotiating period.
“We had an opportunity — after discussing it with Dave [Ziegler] — [to] get younger and add another draft pick in the draft, the top 100, and use some of that money that we would’ve paid Darren to pay [wide receiver] Jakobi [Meyers] and start working towards some other things,” McDaniels said at the league meeting. “I really enjoyed Darren. Wished I would’ve had more games with him last year. Like I said, not easy decisions, but that is what went into it.”
JUST MINUTES AFTER Waller’s phone call with Ziegler came a FaceTime from his new team. Giants coach Brian Daboll and Schoen welcomed Waller. Schoen told his new tight end how excited he was to have a Pro Bowl-caliber player added to a receiving corps in desperate need of a No. 1 option.
By 4 p.m., Waller was scheduling a flight to Newark, New Jersey. He would be in East Rutherford the following afternoon with his father — a Queens native who grew up a Giants fan — meeting his coach, general manager and quarterback. Jones made a special trip to the facility and promised to link up for a throwing session before the start of the offseason program Monday. Waller joined Jones and almost every Giants receiver — as well as running back Saquon Barkley — in Arizona last week for workouts.
Waller is excited for a fresh start in the NFL’s largest market. A “breath of fresh air,” as one source close to Waller explained.
As an entrepreneur with plenty of off-the-field interests — he writes and produces his own music, hosts his own podcast — New York had appeal. So did the Giants, with a coach and general manager who wanted Waller. Daboll and Schoen, unlike McDaniels and Ziegler, didn’t inherit him.
It was a “well-received trade,” sources close to Waller and the Giants told ESPN.
The Giants have already begun making plans to keep Waller from overextending himself and risking further injuries and managing his workload to maximize his health.
“We’ve had initial talks about it,” Daboll said recently. “I’ve had initial discussions with our training staff about practices and OTAs and some things.”
Daboll also has firsthand experience seeing a tight end as the focus of a passing attack. He was the tight ends coach in New England during a chunk of Rob Gronkowski’s career (2013 to 2016). Gronkowski was represented by agent Drew Rosenhaus, who also has Waller as a client.
“I shared with Darren that I felt like it was going to be a very tight end-friendly offense,” Rosenhaus told ESPN of his message after the trade.
None of this will make the sudden change easier for Waller. He was married and returned from his honeymoon with the intention of living full-time in the same city as his wife. Hours after returning, they came to the realization they would be spending more time apart than anticipated.
The NFL season runs from the start of training camp in July until at least January.
The WNBA season begins with training camp in late April and can run until October. It should allow for the newly married couple to live together for most of the year. It’s July through October where there will be overlap. In the meantime, Waller is expected to go back and forth around his work schedule this spring.
“It was a bit of a curveball, coming back one day from the honeymoon,” Waller said. “She supports me and wants to see me shine to my ultimate potential as a player while I still have the opportunity. So, I’m grateful to have her support, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to remain strong together, whatever the distance looks like, the timing of it.
“I’m grateful to have somebody that understands how things work in an industry like this, and we just go forward and make the best of it.”
ESPN Las Vegas Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez contributed to this report