Hindsight is 20/20 When Judging the Decision to Let Delanie Walker Go

As the San Francisco 49ers get ready to host the Tennessee Titans this Sunday, a familiar face comes to town. Titans Tight End Delanie Walker will face his old team for the first time in the 49ers’ home stadium (the first meeting was in Tenneesse in 2013).

Walker was drafted in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft by San Francisco, who drafted fellow tight end Vernon Davis five rounds prior with the number six overall pick out of Maryland. Walker would end up being a key piece in Jim Harbaugh’s offense both as a blocker and as a receiver, but his career didn’t start that way.

As a sixth round pick, he didn’t figure into the immediate plans for the offense and only saw four targets his rookie season. In 2007, his target total moved to 42 and he was able to haul in 21 receptions and even his first touchdown. Gradually, Walker would work his way into the offense, but it was in 2008 where he was able to show off his speed…as a kick returner. Allen Rossum was having a great season (1200 return yards and a score) and teams were trying to kick away from him, but Walker would make them pay thirteen times for 257 and even a long of 35 yards. Not too shabby.

Under new Head Coach Mike Singletary, Walker didn’t have as much as an impact on the offense because Singletary was busy whipping Vernon Davis into shape assisting in Vernon Davis’ growth. It paid dividends as Davis became a stud in 2009 with a career season. Davis would become one of the best in the NFL and was a horrible nightmare matchup for every team. The 49ers had found a weapon to compliment Frank Gore and they kept throwing his way.

When Jim Harbaugh was hired, he brought his robust running system from Stanford and he and offensive coordinator Greg Roman found a new role for Walker. He would be used as an extra blocker in motion and an occasional downfield threat. And boy did he block. He was able to catch another 19 passes and three touchdowns.

Davis was still the primary receiver and was dominant in the 2011 playoffs against the Saints and Giants. That cannot be understated or brushed aside. Niner fans were used to bad seasons from 2003-2010 and were cheering until their voices were hoarse in 2011. That was largely because Vernon Davis stepped up in a big way.

So, why the history and the role comparisons? Matt Barrows of the Sacrament Bee (one of my absolute favorite writers, by the way) wrote an article about how the 49ers let the wrong tight end go following the 2012 season.

After 2012, Walker became a starter in Tennessee and has been one of the best in the league, catching at least 60 passes each season. Davis, on the other hand, has been a shell of himself and is a backup in Washington. The easy judgment is to say that the 49ers made a mistake and I think given what we know right now, we would all say the right thing during the spring of 2013 would be to give Walker a new contract and either trade or cut Davis. Sounds simple right? Not so fast.

At the time, Vernon Davis was still at the top of his game and followed up the 2011 playoffs with another big three games. He had one of the biggest catches in the Divisional playoff against the Green Bay Packers, a great 44 yard catch over A.J. Hawk (who was drafted one spot above Davis in ’06). He was crucial in the comeback against the Falcons, scoring a touchdown near the end of the first half to get the 49ers back in the game. And finally, he had a big game in the Super Bowl, but we won’t talk about how that ended.

Delanie Walker was an important piece, but never showed that he was anything more than a utility guy (a real good one, but still a utility guy, nevertheless). The real key piece of information everyone is forgetting is that Walker had several drops in 2012. He looked anything but the great player he is today.

When it was time to get the team ready for another deep playoff run in 2013, the 49ers chose not to pay two tight ends starter money and they let Walker go.

There was no outrage at the time. It was the sensible thing to do. I was disappointed, but the move made sense to me, despite Walker’s drops issue. Vance McDonald was drafted and it looked like he might be a good replacement. Obviously, that was pretty much a disaster.

So should the 49ers have gotten rid of Davis in favor of Walker? At the time, given the circumstances, NO WAY. Here’s another element that has been overlooked and forgotten. Vernon Davis had a career season in 2013. Michael Crabtree was hurt and after his 200 yard performance in Week 1, new receiver Anquan Boldin was seeing double teams. Davis was the only other weapon as Kyle Williams (sorry to bring that name up) didn’t materialize into a good receiver and Mario Manningham was hurt.

Davis was dominant and his 13 touchdowns were critical in fueling the 49ers to a 12-4 regular season record. Not enough to convince you yet? How bout his game against the Packers in the 2013 Wild Card round where he caught a huge 28 yard touchdown that helped the 49ers win in frigid Lambeau Field against Aaron Rodgers? Or how bout the monstrous score right before the half where he displayed amazing footwork to stay inbounds and take a 13-10 halftime lead? That score catapulted the 49ers into a load of momentum as they won 23-10 and got back to the NFC Championship Game against Seattle.

Had it not been for two very unfortunate injuries to Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman and several bad and missed calls in Seattle, the 49ers would have gotten back to the Super Bowl and had a great chance to win it. But without Vernon Davis, I don’t believe they ever would have gotten that chance.

In 2014, Davis’ chemistry with Colin Kaepernick continued as he scored two touchdowns in the first half of Week 1’s game against the Dallas Cowboys. It looked like everything would continue as it did in 2013, but Davis got hurt against the Bears in Week 2 and everything changed. The injury nagged him all year and he never did recover into the 2015 season. Then he was cut loose.

Walker said this week that “Honestly, Jim Harbaugh was trying to do basically everything in his power to get the deal done to make me stay…”. I’m sure that’s true. Harbaugh loved his players and if he had his way, he would have kept them all. While I’m not defending the mess that General Manager Trent Baalke ultimately caused, Harbaugh also said the 49ers should have paid safety Dashon Goldson top money, which would have been terrible as he was becoming a liability in coverage and was good for at least one critical late-hit penalty every game.

The point is, there was no way to tell what kind of player Walker could be. I would still argue he was nowhere near as dominant as Davis was in his good years, but Walker has been a consistent, dependent proven pro, while Davis became injured and more worried about his brand. I reiterate, I wish the 49ers could have kept both of them, but it wasn’t realistic at the time, especially given Walker’s drops.

If the question is, would you rather keep Walker over Davis with what we know in 2017, the answer of course is YES. It’s too bad no one had a crystal ball back in 2013 because it was not obvious at all that Walker would materialize into what he is now.

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