The 49ers have several players people have suggested they should cut, and they have one extremely well known player many of those same people hope they can trade. They also have a fair amount of guys who can just leave if they so choose (list via Cam Inman).
Unrestricted free agents: Billy Cundiff*, K; Leonard Davis, OL; Ted Ginn, WR; Dashon Goldson, S;Tavares Gooden, LB; Larry Grant, LB; Clark Haggans, LB; Brandon Jacobs*, RB; Ricky Jean Francois, DT; Randy Moss, WR; Isaac Sopoaga, DT; Delanie Walker, TE
* Players cut by 2012 team.
There’s no point in discussing Cundiff or Jacobs any further. Ruthless wrote about Dashon Goldson — a piece Goldson’s agent probably won’t print, laminate and hand out to potential suitors. However, unless Trenton Robinson was a total badass on the practice squad the 49ers will probably want to keep Goldson around, despite what Pro Football Focus says. Why? Because the other options include (1) overpaying for someone else or (2) hoping a first round safety can come in and start next year alongside Donte Whitner. Whether via franchise tag or the long-term deal he’s been seeking for years, I believe Goldson will return to San Francisco.
Walker isn’t the longest-tenured 49er on that list. That would be Isaac Sopoaga. But Walker seems like he’s had at least three careers since coming to San Francisco. First, he was the wide receiver who happened to be listed at tight end. Then Jim Harbaugh arrived and Walker became an H-back. Whether it was due to concussion concerns or the belief that Bruce Miller deserved to be on the field as much as possible, Walker went back to tight end this year and had a productive season.
But the drops!
Undoubtedly one of the toughest players on a team full of guys who are proficient when it comes to withstanding pain and hurting other humans, Walker has missed only four games over the past six seasons and didn’t miss a game in 2012. Most people didn’t expect him to come back after having his jaw wired shut for weeks, but Walker caught two passes for 36 yards in the NFC Championship against the New York Giants. Grade on the curve that night and Walker’s performance was effectively a 100-yard game.
Yeah, but you remember that drop in Arizona this year, right? John Clayton could’ve caught that pass, and it kept Alex Smith from completing 19-of-19 pases.
Walker had a great game in the Super Bowl, catching three passes for 48 yards. However, his best catch may have been that ball that he snagged just out of bounds. For whatever reason (and I still haven’t watched the Super Bowl on TV yet), that almost-catch is one of the plays I remember most from watching the game behind the 49ers’ end zone…
What, are you daydreaming now? Go drink another hurricane, you overly sentimental boof. Think about the drops!
Okay, the drops were a problem. A huge problem. Matt Barrows remembers Walker having the best hands in camp as a rookie, and since Barrows is a pretty great beat writer, I’m leaning toward believing him. I wouldn’t know, since I wasn’t watching practices back then and Mike Nolan’s 49ers only ran 15* passing plays in 2006, Walker’s rookie season.
Walker knew he had to do something about the drops leading into the game against Atlanta, and talked about catching at least 500 passes from a Jugs machine set at full blast (“11” in Spinal Tap parlance, “Kap” if we’re going with the modern day translation). And over the last two games, Walker’s habit of dropping easy passes ceased to rear it’s droply head.
Still, nine drops on 37 targets is embarrassing. Drops are also more frustrating than anything else than can happen in football, even penalties. The blocking was good enough, the play was designed intelligently enough to get at least one person open, the throw was good enough. When those three things happen at the same time and the play results in zero yards and a guy shaking his head and staring at his hands as if they’re covered with chicken pox, it’s a bad feeling.
But bad enough to let Walker walk?
I’m pretty sure this sentiment will rankle a certain faction of 49ers fans — the ones who watch just enough college football to think they’re experts on the draft. Specifically, the ones who started watching about a half dozen Stanford games a year once they got good. They wanted Coby Fleener last year, and this year they’ll want Zach Ertz with the thirst of a thousand groupies. So I’ll make my case for re-signing Walker and then I’ll back out of the room slowly.
— According to PFF, Walker was the sixth best run blocker on the team last year with a score of 8.9 in that category (that put him just behind Jonathan Goodwin, who scored a 9.8 and doesn’t catch passes in his spare time).
— Walker was also the fourth best pass blocker on the team, which seems insane. I respect the hell out of PFF, but maybe Mike Iupati and Leonard Davis (the two worst pass blockers on the team according to their metrics) get dinged because it’s a lot easier for a guard to allow a sack than a tight end. Regardless, Walker can block better than every other available FA tight end.
— The more sports I watch and teams I see, the more I respect durability. Walker doesn’t miss games, which is ridiculous considering the positions he plays and what he’s asked to do.
— Walker is still underrated. In this list of free agents ranked on their value on the open market, Walker is listed 11th among the tight ends. Besides Tony Gonzalez and Martellus Bennett, the top half of that list is full of one-dimensional, don’t-let-’em-block guys (Jared Cook, Brandon Myers, Dustin Keller, Anthony Fasano, Fred Davis) and old players with a name (Dallas Clark, Ben Watson, Todd Heap, Kellen Winslow).
— Walker led the 49ers in yards per reception last year (16.4).
— Walker only had seven drops in the three seasons before 2012. While he doesn’t have the surest hands in the world, I’d throw the nine drops he has this past season in the David Akers Memorial: Holy Crap He Lost It Mentally category.
— According to PFF, Walker and Miller were the two best non-kicking, non-returning special teams players on the roster.
— The guy looks kind of like a monstrous, muscle-bound version of Kanye West. That has to count for something.
I’ve heard some people wonder whether Walker would want to go to a team where he could be the No. 1 receiving option at tight end and, in the process, get out of Vernon Davis’ shadow. If he gets that chance, I’d be happy for him. The guy has done whatever the 49ers have asked, and maybe that’s another reason why I’m sympathetic to the bring-Delanie-back cause.
I know it’s easy to scream “cut his ass” on Twitter after a drop that seems especially backbreaking (feels good, too!), but I save that kind of vitriol for Ted Ginn when he shies away from a bouncing football like it might be coated in Anthrax. The 49ers are a flashier team than they used to be, but they’re still about brute physicality more than anything else. And losing Walker would hurt them in that regard, which is why they should forgive the drops and bring him back.
*Possibly a low estimate