Heading into the 2013 offseason, the 49ers had a decision to make: Hold onto tight end Vernon Davis or his position mate, Delanie Walker.
The answer was easy. Davis, after all, was as fast as a wide receiver, as powerful as an offensive tackle and had been the team’s hero during the 49ers’ first playoff run two years earlier. Walker was a solid, multi-talented player but definitely played second fiddle to Davis, a former first-round pick, at the time.
Four years later, however, it’s clear the 49ers made the wrong choice. While Davis’ focus waned and his performance fizzled in San Francisco, Walker remained hungry. He’s made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons for the Tennessee Titans, with whom he signed a free-agent deal in March 2013, and returns to the Bay Area on Sunday as Tennessee’s leading receiver.
“Honestly, Jim Harbaugh was trying to do basically everything in his power to get the deal done to make me stay,” Walker, 33, said on a conference call Tuesday from Tempe, Ariz. where the Titans are practicing this week. “But I don’t think the GM (general manager Trent Baalke) saw the same picture as Jim Harbaugh at that time. So I realized it was time for me to go somewhere else and show everybody how good I can be at the No. 1 spot, and that’s what I’ve been doing so far.”
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Walker has caught at least 60 passes every season since joining the Titans and this year leads his team with 63 catches and 718 receiving yards. By contrast the 49ers tight ends – George Kittle, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen and Cole Hikutini – have combined for 51 catches and 581 receiving yards
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said he’s been impressed by Walker’s preparation and his drive even as he closes out his 12th season in the league.
“That’s rare,” Mularkey said. “That’s rare to have the passion, the desire, the work ethic, especially this time of the year. It’s tough on players. But I think why he’s so effective is how he takes care of himself with recovery and all his down time.”
Back in 2013 the 49ers had an abundance of star players and paucity of salary-cap space. Walker said he figured the team would be split apart at some point, and that’s what happened.
Asked which 49ers he recognized as he prepares to play his first-ever game at Levi’s Stadium, Walker ticked off center Daniel Kilgore and tackle Joe Staley, with whom he still corresponds, before trailing off. The team also signed Celek as an undrafted rookie during Walker’s final season with the 49ers.
Celek has been the 49ers’ most consistent tight end this season and he leads the team in touchdown catches this year – three.
The 49ers traded Davis to the Broncos during the 2015 season. He’s had a notable uptick in production since joining his hometown Washington Redskins last year. San Francisco also drafted a tight end, Vance McDonald, in the second round a month after Walker left for Tennessee. McDonald, however, underperformed and, along with a fifth-round pick, was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in August for a fourth-round selection in the upcoming draft.
Walker said that rookie linebacker Reuben Foster has captured his and the Titans’ attention this week but advised against using Foster to cover him on Sunday.
“I’m not sure he’s going to cover me – I really think that’s a mismatch if he’s trying to cover me,” Walker said. “I’m thinking that they may have a (defensive back) or a nickel cornerback come in and cover me. That’s just me being honest with you.”