Learning from History: Darren Waller

What can the past tell us about how Darren Waller's career is likely to turn out?

Welcome to Learning from History, where I dig into every fantasy season since 1985 to find historical comparisons for modern players.

In my mind, historical comparisons serve two purposes. In instances where we have broad intuitions about how good or bad a player is, comparisons allow us to add a bit of precision both to the proper expectation and to the range of outcomes surrounding it.

Highly-drafted running backs who have strong first seasons tend to have valuable fantasy careers ahead of them, so Josh Jacobs’ dynasty outlook is good. But the devil is in the details. How good? Clearly he’s worth a future 1st round rookie pick. Is he worth two of them? Three? What if the picks are low? What if they’re high? Placing more precise numbers to his value allows us to make more informed decisions about when to buy and when to sell.

Alternately, comparisons are often useful instances where we do not have strong intuitions in the first place. Darren Waller had 199 yards in his first four years. (Not per year, but total.) In year 5, he had 1150 yards, the 20th-highest single-season total by a tight end in history.

What are we to make of Darren Waller?

It might be difficult to think of a similar player. Or if one does come to mind, it’s likely 2015 breakout sensation Gary Barnidge, who had 603 yards through his first seven seasons before erupting for 1043 in Year 8. A comparison to Barnidge is unflattering for Waller because Barnidge had just 612 more yards over the rest of his career.

But relying on memory to find comparable players leaves us susceptible to a whole host of cognitive biases— selection bias, confirmation bias, availability heuristic, and a raft of others. Which is why it’s so useful to take an objective look through history.

I have a database of every fantasy season since 1985, and I scoured it for the most comparable players to Waller. I’ve presented all of the comparisons here in full, both so you can evaluate my criteria and the resulting lists for yourself.

These lists of historically comparable players don’t fully outline the range of possibilities in front of Darren Waller. After all, any list of comparable players to Jerry Rice would always suggest a range of outcomes that didn’t include the trajectory Jerry Rice eventually took. Each player is an individual and events that happened to unrelated players decades ago hardly represent any sort of destiny.

But while history never repeats itself, it often rhymes, and looking at the fates of yesterday's breakout stars can leave us better equipped to predict what lies in store for today's.

A Note On Methodology:

I am searching players by total fantasy value, which is an approximation of how many extra points they would have provided a fantasy GM over a waiver-wire replacement. A big advantage of this approach is it automatically adjusts for league environment; getting 1150 yards in a season where teams are passing a lot more to their tight ends might be more comparable to just 800 yards in a season where tight ends were lightly used, say.

But just because a player has positive value doesn’t mean he was very good. Remember, the point of comparison is a theoretical “waiver-wire replacement”. So here are some benchmarks to keep in mind.

Over the last decade, 120 tight ends have added 44 points over a waiver replacement, an average of 12 per year. So 44 points is the rough mark of a “TE1 season” (the closest example from last year was Dallas Goedert, with 42 points over replacement). Similarly, 60 tight ends have produced about 74 points of value over replacement, so that would rank was TE6 in a typical year (the closest match last year was Jared Cook with 71). Finally, 112 points is historically around the TE3 mark (Waller himself had 111 last year).

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