On the surface, the NFL is a highlight reel league. Players like Vernon Davis get all the attention and credit from pundits, fantasy players and TV announcers for producing big numbers. Conversely, some of those same observers are ignoring or even questioning Delanie Walker’s production, since he has only one catch for seven yards along with four dropped passes. Add in a holding call that negated an Alex Smith run, and some jumped to harsh conclusions about Walker’s performance over the season’s first two games.
Yet, despite his early season absence from the stat sheet, Walker has been one of the most important players on the field for San Francisco’s offense.
The 49ers like to go big in their personnel groupings fairly often. Walker and Davis are not only receiving threats but they’re great blockers too – that’s why offensive coordinator Greg Roman can utilize both the pass and the run beneath the veil of these “big sets,” keeping defenses on their toes.
Walker was used in close to 75% of the offensive snaps against the Lions and he rarely lined up in the same position twice. Sometimes it was in a three-point stance beside a tackle. Sometimes it was upright behind a tackle. Sometimes he was in the slot, other times he lined up as a fullback.
Walker was in pre-snap motion on nearly every snap. Sometimes he was used as a passing decoy on one side of the field, effectively opening up the designed route on the opposite end. But he was most effective when San Francisco ran the ball. The 49ers gained a total of 148 yards rushing on Sunday – Walker had key blocks on 70 yards of that total.
Walker’s under-the-radar highlight reel
— Midway through the first quarter, he chipped the Lions’ defensive tackle in the backfield, allowing Gore to gain 14 yards.
— Gore’s second quarter touchdown run wouldn’t have been possible if not for Walker opening the hole, and holding it open, with a fantastic block on a cornerback.
— At 9:24 in the second quarter, Walker had a key block on a 12-yard gain for Gore.
— With just under three minutes left in the second quarter, Smith motioned Walker out wide. The Lions’ linebacker called an audible to account for his motion and Gore ended up gaining 16 yards on the play.
— In the third quarter, Walker pushed out a linebacker and sprung Kendall Hunter for a 13-yard gain
– Motioning Walker worked again with two minutes left in the third, as the defense adjusted and he threw a fantastic downfield block that allowed Gore to gain six yards.
– Walker was involved in blocking for a screen pass, too. Set as a wideout, he held a block on the cornerback so that Mario Manningham could gain 13 yards.
Obviously Walker will have to do a better job of catching the ball if Smith is going to throw to him. Defenses won’t respect him as a pass threat if he doesn’t see targets, either. But the way Walker opened holes for the 49ers on Sunday, don’t expect to see Garrett Celek replace him anytime soon. Even with the dropped passes, Walker’s under the radar production has been of vital importance to the 49ers’ offense.