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Tuesday, March 12, 2013
TE Delanie Walker's departure signal shift?

By Mike Sando

The San Francisco 49ers, having already committed more than $7 million per year to Vernon Davis, weren't willing to pay starting money for No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker.

That is why the 49ers lost Walker to the Tennessee Titans in free agency, reportedly on a four-year deal worth $17.5 million.

San Francisco ideally would have held onto Walker. Walker played 57 percent of the offensive snaps last season. Walker's production spiked when Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith at quarterback, as the chart shows. Walker was an excellent blocker, key special-teams player and fast enough to present matchup problems.

The 49ers could draft or sign another tight end, but I wonder if they're about to become more of a three-receiver team. What are the odds they'll find another tight end good enough to command 57 percent of the snaps when Davis is already established as an every-down player? Do the 49ers need anyone beyond Davis, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin to factor as a receiving target?

Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are coming off knee surgeries. Second-year receiver A.J. Jenkins did not catch a pass as a rookie.

The 49ers used two-plus tight ends 63 percent of the time on first and second downs last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The rest of the NFL used two-plus tight ends 38 percent of the time on those downs. The 49ers could be headed toward the league average without Walker. They could also lose the versatility Walker brought though his ability to line up just about anywhere in the formation.

The offense was going to evolve and grow around Kaepernick anyway. Crabtree clearly benefited from Kaepernick's presence. Walker did, too. Davis' reemergence as a receiving threat during the playoffs had to be particularly encouraging for San Francisco.

Davis caught 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in the postseason.