The San Francisco 49ers will travel to Tennessee to face the Titans this week. One of the players that the defense will focus on is Delanie Walker. Colin Kaepernick has had trouble building trust and confidence in his receivers not named Anquan Boldin or Vernon Davis. One player whom he did trust was Walker. Was it a mistake letting him go via free agency?
There is no mistaking the value that Walker had to the 49ers. Jim Harbaugh and many others often referred to him as a swiss army knife. He helped in the blocking game especially on wham plays. He also was a player they lined up outside to create a mismatch. Walker even returned kicks at times for the 49ers.
The 49ers took a Billy Beane -like approach to replacing him. Beane is famous for the success that he has had with the Oakland A’s. They use formulas to calculate which group of players can be obtained to collectively replace a marquee player that they lost.
The first thing that the 49ers did to replace Walker was trade up to draft Vance McDonald. McDonald was the perfect option for this job because of how often he played in the slot position at Rice University. He had to block in space and even lined up in the backfield at Rice. McDonald is the number two tight end when the 49ers use 12 or 22 personnel. He is an option that is there for Kaepernick to take advantage of by getting him the ball in space. When he does get the ball in space, he can either run over the defender (ask Richard Sherman) or jump over a would be defender (ask Jamarca Sanford).
Bruce Miller has taken on most of Walker’s responsibility in the blocking game. Miller is a punishing blocker for Frank Gore. Most of the times, if you follow Miller, he will take you to where the play is going. He has caught a few passes out of the backfield as well. It’s no coincidence that this team is using a significantly higher percentage of 22 personnel.
The other player used to make up for the loss of Walker is none other than Vernon Davis. The 49ers will have Davis line up as a wide receiver and use him to take advantage of mismatches. Yes, Davis has done this in the past, but he gets to do it a bit more now.
The 49ers used to use Walker as a wide receiver and have him line up on the opposite side of the other two receivers in a twins set. They liked to run an all go play with Davis at tight end running a post route. This put pressure on the safety to pick a route to cover and Colin Kaepernick just reads the safety. The 49ers scored on this play against the New England Patriots last year when Walker beat Alfonzo Dennard for a 34-yard touchdown. Davis scored on the same play against the Cardinals last week. He ran right by Yeremiah Bell on a go route as he scored a 35-yard touchdown.
Delanie Walker will be missed for sure but allowing him to walk via free agency was not a mistake. When you have a good team, there will be players that get the opportunity to go to another team and get rewarded with a large contract. The good teams are able to have the remaining players collectively make up for the loss. A good front office will also find a less expensive player to contribute. The 49ers have made an attempt to do this by expanding the roles of Bruce Miller and Vernon Davis. They also drafted Vance McDonald. The book is still out on how this replacement project will work.