Ever since the mere thought of Delanie Walker hitting free agency surfaced, fans, writers and analysts have discussed the potential impact that his absence could have on the 49ers' offense. Walker has become an excellent blocker, already had good speed and ran decent routes (having been a wide receiver in college). Walker's versatility gave him the license to be utilized in a multitude of ways in Greg Roman's playbook. How would the 49ers deal with the loss of such an integral part of their offense?
Surely they'd have to find someone who fit the same mold as Walker: a fast and smart player who is able to line up all over the field and be a lead-blocker between the tackles, while also being capable of streaking deep down the sideline for a long pass. But where do you find a guy who is such a Swiss Army Knife; or can you, really?
The answer is that you probably can't. Walker is a rare combination of body, skills, and smarts at the tight end position. He was short compared to many tight ends and stocky in build, which is probably why he was so good in the H-back role (which incorporates aspects of fullback as well as tight end and slot receiver). He was also agile; not a big, plodding body like many at his position. The truth is, you rarely find guys who can block and factor into the passing game while also moving all over the formation.
So what can the 49ers do if they can't replace Walker's skill set? Will the offense suffer? Will they have to teach someone else to fill his role, someone who likely doesn't possess all of Walker's traits, or perhaps wasn't asked to do so many different things thus far, someone who may struggle in Walker's stead?
I don't think so.
If there's one thing that Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have done since arriving in Santa Clara, it's adapt. They tailored an offense around Frank Gore, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis that featured power running, timely play-action, and otherwise mostly short, safe throws. At the same time, they took the aforementioned Smith to new heights, as we witnessed a 2011 NFC Championship birth and victories in most of Smith's games as a 2012 starter.
Then, with new weapons like Mario Manningham, Randy Moss (lightweight serious), LaMichael James and Colin Kaepernick, they again reinvented themselves by throwing the ball down-field more, utilizing the read-option and Pistol formation and taking this once-again new set of plays to the Super Bowl, and within a single play of being crowned Champs.
No, I don't think the 49ers are scrambling to find a carbon copy of Delanie Walker. They may very well end up with a completely different type of tight end playing second fiddle to Vernon Davis. Perhaps a large, blocking TE with just a slight ability to slip out into passing lanes, but by no means a burner. Maybe it will be a type-Y TE who plays mostly in the slot and specializes in blowing past linebackers and safeties in the passing game, but offers little help in the power run game.
Whatever the case may be, I think we know that the offense will evolve around whomever is on the field, and whomever that is, the team will succeed by scheming to the strengths of their guys; not trying to duplicate what they had in Delanie Walker.
So fear not, 49ers fans. Don't watch the draft, biting your nails, downing drinks and screaming out popular tight ends' names at your TV screen. Don't fear the unknown or tie yourself to what we've seen thus far. For 2013 may well feature things we couldn't even imagine or think were possible ... but rest assured that points will be scored, games will be won, and we won't be tweeting this video to Delanie Walker.