Alex Smith

The 2012 49ers: how Delanie Walker’s role might change

Hopefully those of you who were stricken with the love bug for Coby Fleener have gotten over it by now. Fans, mock drafters, even beat writers were crushing HARD on Fleener, and with the selection of A.J. Jenkins in the first round … the Fleen-dream died.

Luckily there are plenty of other tight ends in the sea, and a couple really good ones were already on the San Francisco 49ers’ roster before the draft. Vernon Davis placed his career on a completely different trajectory after going off for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns in the NFL Playoffs. While guys like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham moved to the top of the tight end heap (yes, above Todd Heap) during the 2011 regular season, Davis’ postseason was a statement: when it comes to tight ends, Davis looks up to no one.

But nowadays you can’t have too many tight ends, which is why so many people wanted to reunite Fleener and Jim Harbaugh. Which brings us to Delanie Walker.

Walker’s had a very interesting career, to put it lightly. Drafted as a wide receiver, converted to tight end, shifted to H-back in Harbaugh’s first season. Harbaugh’s and Greg Roman’s usage of Davis was a little surprising. After watching Harbaugh’s Stanford teams, many expected Walker to finally become an integral part of the passing game after averaging 15 receptions and 223 yards over his first four full seasons. In 2011, Walker caught 19 balls for 198 yards.

Forgettable receiving numbers, but that only scratches the surface of Walker’s contributions as a blocker. The tight end combined with Bruce Miller (a former defensive lineman) to replace Moran Norris at fullback, and both were excellent. Throughout last season Walker — who thought he was in over his head during his rookie year as he struggled to learn the tight end position — was as proficient a blocker as Vernon Davis.

Then Walker took a knee to the head from Seattle Seahawks linebacker Leroy Hill on Week 16.

The inadvertent hit sent Walker’s helmet flying. Concussion, broken jaw, the whole bit. That Walker was able to return for the NFC Championship Game was a miracle, and with Davis’ outstanding game and the awful collective performance from the wide receivers, it’s easy to forget that Walker caught 2 passes for 36 yards against the New York Giants.

Walker’s toughness and versatility are undeniable. However, there are questions surrounding his role for next season, his contract year.

1. Can Walker remain a hybrid TE/FB?

Both Walker and Miller suffered concussions last season, so it would behoove the 49ers to come up with a contingency plan. Brandon Jacobs’ ability (and willingness) to block could be a factor in whether or not he makes the team out of camp. Same with Anthony Dixon, or perhaps even Rock Cartwright. If there’s one thing watching Harbaugh-coached teams has shown us, it’s that we can never underestimate how much positional flexibility can come into play … as long as a player is willing to expand his game.

Sorry, that last paragraph kind of veered off course at the end. The main point is this: do the 49ers want to keep putting Walker in harm’s way? Tight end isn’t an easy position by any means, and receivers can get concussed too, but it’s hard to imagine either position leading to as much helmet-to-helmet contact as the role of H-back.

2. Will the 49ers need Walker’s blocking ability as much as they did in 2011?

It seems so long ago, but the 49ers’ offensive line looked fairly terrible in August and September. Keeping Alex Smith healthy looked to be an impossible task, especially after Dallas accumulated 6 sacks in Week 2. With the 49ers playing very conservatively on offense to protect Smith (and the ball), Walker was more important as a blocker than as a receiving threat.

Last year, however, the offensive line had to learn a new offense in a very short period of time, and improved substantially as the season went on. This line is also fairly young at every position besides center, and a full off-season probably helps that unit more than any other.

3. Is Walker a true receiving threat?

He’s shown glimpses in his time with the 49ers, but Walker has only gone over 60 yards receiving in four games throughout his career. Despite the team’s off-season moves, the Niners could use his help. Even though Randy Moss is drawing an incredible amount of praise early on and Mario Manningham has made a career’s worth of outstanding catches, this is still a team without a bonafide No. 1 receiver. As so many teams have proven (cough … the Packers … cough) over the years, a team can never have too many weapons. Do Harbaugh and Roman see Walker as a weapon, a bruiser, or both?

4. How does Walker see himself?

Versatility is nice, but the money’s in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Some have wondered if Walker might use free agency as an opportunity to escape the shadow of Davis and become a No. 1 tight end.

5. How do the Niners see him?

Would the 49ers consider involving Walker more in the passing game to keep him happy (and more willing to re-sign), or conversely would they rather keep Walker’s receiving numbers (and perceived value) down? Admittedly I’m probably over-thinking things here — during the games on the 49ers’ brutal regular season schedule it’s doubtful Walker’s contract status would enter into things while calling plays. However, just look at how they stockpiled picks for the 2013 draft. This team is always thinking about the future.

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