SANTA CLARA (AP) — It’s difficult to pinpoint where Delanie Walker will line up this season for the San Francisco 49ers.
He’s all over the place. By his own count, Walker played snaps at seven different positions last year for the San Francisco offense. He also lined up at 15 different spots on the field during the course of the season.
Walker’s versatility meant a lot to the 49ers last season as the team adjusted to a new offense under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
He started seven games at tight end — his listed position — but also lined up at offensive tackle, fullback, running back and both wide receiver positions.
He was used as a regular target in the passing game, as a decoy and as a blocker. He even had three carries and also had eight special teams tackles.
Walker’s role continues to expand this summer in training camp even though the 49ers are working on ways to get several other newcomers at the skill positions involved in the offense.
“I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s our second year with the same offensive coordinator, so I think we’ll do even a little bit more,” Walker said Monday.
Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman brought a tight end-friendly offense with them from Stanford to the 49ers last year, and Walker thrived in the system even though the team has one of the top tight ends in the NFL in Vernon Davis.
San Francisco often uses two-tight end formations, and Roman consistently came up with creative ways to use Walker.
Roman moved the seventh-year veteran all over the field and constantly had him shifting into different alignments after the offense had come to the line of scrimmage.
Opposing defenses seldom knew what was coming when Walker stepped out of the huddle. The 49ers want to keep them guessing.
“We will continue to push the envelope with what we’re doing, how we’re using him,” Roman said. “He’s a guy that gets it, he understands football. So that tandem of tight ends, you can do a lot of different things with them. Delanie worked real hard last year to understand his role, and many roles really on the offense. He’s starting off at a much higher spot this year.”
Used mostly as a receiving tight end during his first five NFL seasons, Walker evolved into a key part of the San Francisco offense last season. Despite missing most of two games with a broken jaw, he finished fourth on the team with 19 receptions and his three touchdown catches were a career high.
At 242 pounds, Walker — who played wide receiver in college — also contributed to San Francisco’s successful turnaround season with his blocking.
He had two memorable blocks on Detroit nose tackle Ndamukong Suh to spring Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore for long gains as the 49ers ended the Lions’ unbeaten run to start the season.
Walker also scored the winning touchdown in that game, catching a fourth-and-goal pass from Alex Smith with 1:51 to play to record one of the most clutch plays of the season for the NFL’s 26th-ranked offense.
Walker was effective in the passing game even when the ball wasn’t coming his way. He was held in as a blocker from several different positions, and when running patterns he created space in the passing lanes for San Francisco’s top targets Michael Crabtree (72 receptions last season) and Davis (67 receptions).
“Delanie is pretty unique,” said Davis, who like Walker was drafted by the 49ers in 2006. “When I look at him, I don’t look at him as a tight end. I look at him as a playmaker. He brings a lot of value to this offense because he’s able to do a lot of different things and is very athletic. He can do a lot of great things that will help put us in good situations.”
Walker’s receiving numbers dropped last season from his career-high totals of 29 receptions for 331 yards in 2010, but he was on the field much more often. He was content in his role as the 49ers had the first winning season of his career.
Walker said that won’t change this year even though he has considerably more competition for receptions. The 49ers added free-agent wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham and free-agent running back Brandon Jacobs during the offseason.
The 49ers also selected wide receiver A.J. Jenkins and running back LaMichael James in the first two rounds of this year’s draft.
“This will open it up for a lot of guys having a lot of opportunities, for me and everyone,” Walker said. “That’s just going to make the defense have to choose who they want to double-team. The playbook has been opened, so a lot of guys are going to get a lot of touches, and I’m not worried about losing any touches.”