Tight end Delanie Walker's career took a turn Tuesday afternoon. The man got paid! Walker signed a monster deal with Tennessee Titans believed to be worth four years and $17.5 million and includes $8.6 million guaranteed. Obviously, this isn't a monster deal like Joe Flacco-size monster but for a seven-year vet who has never caught more than 29 passes in a season, that's not too shabby!
Walker is coming off his best year in his seven years with the team. He hauled in 21 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns. But his biggest contributions are not measured in his stat line. Walker's versatility as the Niners' "joker" type tight end meant opposing defenses had to game plan for him. Walker is a great blocker who can stretch the field and is athletic enough to take it 60 yards after the catch.
Walker's role as a "Swiss-Army knife" will eventually need to be replaced. If the Niners look to the draft to fill this need they'd likely have to spend and early round pick (1st-3rd round) in doing so. Let's take a look at some guys they could target.
Neither of the top two tight ends available Tyler Eifert of Notre Dame and Zach Ertz of Stanford fit that "joker" style of play. Both are more traditional tight ends. Eifert is locked in as a first round pick and could be a nice selection for the New York Giants at pick 19 given they just lost Martellus Bennett to Chicago. Ertz is likely headed for the second round and would likely be available at 34 when the Niners pick.
If they don't move up for Eifert and pass on Ertz, here are a couple of guys that could be targeted:
Note: None of these guys are great blockers. Neither was Vernon Davis when he arrived in 2006. I'm not saying any of these guys is the next Vernon Davis. He's not. I am, however, saying you can teach tight ends to block better in the NFL.
Jordan Reed, Florida: Reed is probably the closet thing to a Delanie Walker-clone as you can get in this year's draft. At 6-3, 236lbs Reed was the personification of versatility during his career at Florida. Reed was recruited as a quarterback and, over his career, has lined up at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end and even running back.
Reed has recently impressed with his hands and was making several one-handed grabs during Florida's pro day on Tuesday. (Note: No word on if it was former Florida QB Tim Tebow throwing those passes that had to be caught with one hand.) Reed is looking at a 3rd-4th round selection and would make sense as a replacement for Walker.
Vance McDonald, Rice: McDonald is a wide receiver in a tight end's body. At 6-4, 267lbs, McDonald posted a solid 4.69 forty at the Combine. McDonald has soft hands and really impressed scouts at the Senior Bowl with his ability to stretch the field up the seams. Versatile enough to line up outside, in the slot, and one the line at Rice. If he improves his blocking he'd fit nicely as a "joker" tight end in anyone's offense.
Gavin Escobar, San Diego State: Escobar lined up mainly in the slot for the Aztecs and has little experience coming off the line. Still his route running and size (6-6, 254lbs) make him a perfect candidate to expose mismatches in the slot. He was SDSU's leading receiver in 2012 with 42 receptions, 543 yards, and six touchdowns. Escobar has seen his stock increase since a solid workout at the Combine. He's likely to be, at worst, a 3 round pick.
Others that might be available later in the draft include:
Joseph Fauria, UCLA: Tall and lanky (6-7, 259lbs), Fauria is a legit red zone threat.
Ryan Otten, San Jose State: At 6-5 and only 230lbs he's a bit light than most would like.
Mychal Rivera, Tennessee: Good vertical pass catcher but not much room to add to his 240-pound frame.
How are you replacing Delanie Walker in 2013? Let me know below or on Twitter @BigSwinginNick