Maybe it was an overreaction on my part to the anger felt by fans who grew tired of his frequent drops, but I was one of the bigger Delanie Walker apologists around. After playing well in the Super Bowl, I wrote about how the San Francisco 49ers should strongly consider re-signing Walker due to his versatility, durability and blockability (hmmm, that actually makes him sound like he’s easy to block — maybe that was a poor choice of made up words).
Then the Tennessee Titans signed Walker to a four-year, $17.5 million contract with a $4 million signing bonus, and that was that.
What did the 49ers lose? They lost a guy who could get open, but Walker was never a No. 1 option. He benefitted from the presence of guys like Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis, who forced opposing defenses to stick a linebacker on Walker and hope because the cornerbacks and safeties were otherwise engaged. With Walker’s hands questionable at best and granite-like at worst, throwing to him was a gamble even if he was wide open. Especially if he was open, in fact. Walker’s concentration was at its best when making difficult catches on the sideline, but most of his drops occurred when he had plenty of room to roam.
Walker’s chief strength was as a blocker who also played well on special teams. The 49ers also had guys like Bruce Miller, Vernon Davis and Will Tukuafu who can handle those tasks (except for maybe the special teams part for Vernon), but that’s not enough for Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh. And in a short period of time, the 49ers have picked up several more blockers:
Vance McDonald, TE
McDonald was used quite a bit as a receiver at Rice, but in his senior year he was utilized more as a traditional tight end. When asked about how much inline blocking he did at Rice, the second of the 49ers’ two second round picks said, “I know I’m very under-developed and I have a lot of raw potential.” Sound familiar? Walker was drafted as a wide receiver and had no idea how to block when he came to the 49ers, and even though Walker got bigger throughout his pro career, he never got as large as McDonald is already: 6-4, 267 lbs. McDonald also benched 225 pounds 31 times, the most of any tight end at the NFL Combine. Tight ends coach Reggie Davis has a lot to work with here.
Cameron Morrah, TE
The 49ers signed this former Cal Bear as a free agent after he spent four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. “Morrah would seem likely to battle Garrett Celek for that third tight end role. Morrah has experience in the Joker role at which Delanie Walker excelled,” wrote David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
Alex Debniak, FB
A former linebacker at Stanford who can do pretty much everything. Yep, sounds like a guy Harbaugh might like. Here’s more:
He was not a starter for the Cardinal, but was a great special teams player. Debniak has a chance to be drafted due to his versatility and special teams skills. – Gil Brandt, NFL.com
The 49ers signed him as an undrafted free agent, same with …
Jason Schepler, FB
The 49ers announced the addition of Schepler today. That announcement included the following information:
Schepler (6-2, 274) played in 49 games (26 starts) for Northern Illinois, catching 14 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns in his career. A second-team Academic All-American as a senior, the team captain caught three passes for 65 yards and one touchdown, helping the Huskies earn a berth in the Orange Bowl. He served as a key blocker for Northern Illinois, which ranked 12th in the NCAA in rushing in 2012 (238.2 yards per game).
MarQueis Gray, TE/WR/QB
Gray would probably need to learn quite a bit about the craft to become a good blocker. “I’m always going to be a quarterback,” he said at University of Minnesota’s Pro Day. “I love playing quarterback. Receiver’s probably my second one because I don’t have to get into a three-point stance. But if a coach asks me to do it [at tight end], then it’s something I’m going to have to do.” While Lawrence Okoye has received most of the attention due to his size and background, Gray may be the most intriguing player among the undrafted free agents the 49ers added.
Other than McDonald, most of these guys probably won’t make the team (although the opportunity squad is always an option). But with so many blocking and special teams options, the 49ers have put themselves in a position where they shouldn’t be hurt by the loss of Walker.