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Thursday, December 29, 2011
49ers' Walker on short list for tight ends

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

The New England Patriots' Aaron Hernandez and the San Francisco 49ers' Delanie Walker top an unusual list of NFL tight ends.

Both have played more than half their teams' offensive snaps, but neither is the featured tight end on his team. The Patriots and 49ers are the only NFL teams with one tight end playing at least 90 percent of the snaps and another playing at least half of them (thank you, Hank Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, for digging up the numbers).

The point is not to go overboard in stressing how much the 49ers might miss Walker while he recovers from a broken jaw suffered in Week 16. We have covered that ground. The 49ers do not have a player similar to Walker on their roster, so they will have to adjust. That is life in the NFL.

The New England comparison interested me for how much the Patriots rely on Rob Gronkowski (96.2 percent of snaps) and Hernandez (73.1) in the passing game. With those two combining for 154 receptions and 1,991 yards this season, the totals for Vernon Davis and Walker (78 catches for 872 yards) reflect a different approach and, to a degree, untapped potential.

The 49ers do not feature their tight ends the same way, obviously, and coach Jim Harbaugh wants to be more run-oriented by design. There is only one Tom Brady, anyway, and the Patriots lack the strong defense that allows the 49ers to win playing the 49ers' way. But with Davis (95.9 percent of snaps) and Walker (56.1) spending so much time on the field, one might reasonably expect them to combine for more production than Davis managed by himself only two seasons ago (78 catches, 965 yards).

Receiving numbers aren't everything, of course. Davis and Walker have contributed in other ways. Their presence on the field forces teams to account for the running game while still having to worry about a speedy tight end getting open as a receiver. Walker's replacement, veteran Justin Peelle, has averaged a modest 8.2 yards per catch for his career. Blocking is his strength.

The chart ranks second tight ends by most playing time for the teams whose primary tight ends have played at least 90 percent of the snaps. The five primary tight ends: Dallas' Jason Witten (99.2 percent), Gronkowski (96.2), Davis (95.9), Pittsburgh's Heath Miller (95.3) and Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew (94.1).

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