In TE Darren Waller, Jon Gruden sees an inspirational 'superstar'

It was Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill who was voted NFL Comeback Player of the Year for 2019.

And it was the 49ers' George Kittle and the Chiefs' Travis Kelce who were rewarded with weighty extensions on Thursday that made them the highest-paid tight ends in the game.

In the eyes of coach Jon Gruden, though, the Raiders have a profound comeback tale being told within their roster by a tight end just as remarkable as any other in the league – Darren Waller.

"We think he's a superstar," Gruden told reporters on Friday. "We think he's a great tight end. I know two tight ends got paid a lot of money [Thursday]. We're happy to have our guy. He can do it all. He can block. He can run any route. He's got great stamina."

He also had great numbers last season, finishing his best pro year with 90 catches for 1,145 yards and three touchdowns. Those statistics compare nicely with Kelce (97 catches, 1,229 yards, five touchdowns) and Kittle (85/1,053/five in 14 games) even though Waller was left out of the Pro Bowl and the other two were voted in.

A day prior to Kittle and Kelce's momentous raises, Waller achieved three years of sobriety.

Having begun his career with the Ravens, Waller missed the entirety of the 2017 season after a second failed drug test. Emerging from those dim days to emerge as a top tight end talent is an ongoing journey Gruden believes others can learn from and be inspired by.

"He had a dark portion of his life there for a while that not a lot of people come back from," Gruden said. "I hope a lot of young people get the real story behind Waller. You can beat addiction. If you just listen to Darren Waller and how he did it, he is a great source of, I think, leadership and proof that you can be great even though you've had some dark, dark times."

In Waller's eyes, Wednesday's anniversary marks a welcomed change from the person he once was to the man he is now.

"It means I'm not the same person that I was, because before I wasn't somebody who was worth looking up to or that was inspirational in any way," Waller, 27, told the media on Friday. "Now I'm kind of free from that. I can really step into my calling and write my own story and be of service to other people in the process and inspire people.

"It means a lot to me now that a lot of people are looking to me for inspiration."

As tight ends are garnering headlines with hefty praise and raises, Waller is due notice for his stardom on the field and his character off it.

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