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Graney: Darren Waller plays good soldier amid contract talks

Darren Waller is taking a professional approach for now. He wants to be among his Raiders teammates and lead and learn a new offensive system. He’s playing the part of a good soldier.

But every elite NFL player has his price — and some who aren’t even that good.

Waller falls in the former group and is searching for a contract extension that hasn’t come. One of the NFL’s finest tight ends is laughably underpaid compared to peers at $7 million annually through next year.

Cleveland just signed David Njoku to a four-year contract worth $54.7 million.

Enough said.

“I just focus on enjoying it, whether I’m here for 10 years or who knows how long,” Waller said. “It’s my agent’s job to do that, and I just focus on the football part …”

Spreading the wealth

He offered such remarks Tuesday, the first of three days of a mandatory minicamp in which the Raiders said they had 100 percent attendance.

It’s funny. So much is being made of new coach Josh McDaniels and his offense, how it could make life plentiful for several skill players. Waller. Wide receivers Davante Adams and Hunter Renfrow.

But could spreading the wealth actually lead to decreased numbers for players such as Waller and Renfrow, who also is in line for a contract extension? In other words, are there enough balls to go around and make everyone as productive as in the past?

And how might that affect negotiations?

“You see it in the NBA,” Waller said. “I remember when the Heat had their big three (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) that first year. It takes chemistry. It works great on (video games like) Madden and 2K. But it’s about being able to bring a level of unselfishness to the table. We’ve all accomplished individual things on our own, so how do we sacrifice a little to help the team?”

There are two sides to when any extension would arrive, and we’re talking about a player in Waller — however productive — who will turn 30 in September. He needs to stay healthy. Needs to prove his best days are not behind him. It all offers a legitimate argument not to extend him right now.

Waller didn’t miss a game in which he started the first two seasons with the Raiders — both of which produced 1,000-yards plus in receiving — but was limited to 11 outings last season. There were knee and ankle issues and time on the COVID list.

You can see, however, how dangerous he could prove with what McDaniels has done offensively in the past. Could be huge from the slot.

Waller has watched tape of a certain tight end named Rob Gronkowski, who shaped a Hall of Fame career under the eyes of McDaniels in New England. Watched as Gronkowski time and again beat defenders up the seam and over the top and simply catching balls from the slot and blowing others up. They lined the guy up everywhere.

“Gronk running wild,” Waller said.

Be careful now. He’s talking about football.

Lead from the back

“Darren has done everything we’ve asked him to do and more,” McDaniels said. “He’s obviously a good player. We love having him here. He comes with a great mindset and attitude every day. Works really hard. I’m looking forward to coaching him.”

He didn’t say for how long.

But for now, Waller will continue to lead his way. Like a wolf leading from the back.

“You don’t have to give speeches like Ray Lewis,” he said. “I’m more reserved. I’m more quiet.

“I see someone struggling and hanging their head and give them an encouraging word or be the first to give them a high-five when they make a good play.”

It’s not certain if the Raiders should extend him or wait. There are sound reasons on both sides.

But, for now, Waller is taking a professional approach.

He’s playing the part of a good soldier.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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