Joe Walker hasn’t made a huge splash in the NFL. The linebacker has played for two teams in his three-year pro career and has played more on special teams than on defense.
Yet the 49ers liked what they saw of him with the Arizona Cardinals in 2019 and have added Walker in free agency to help their depth at linebacker (he plays inside) and add some pop on special teams.
Walker, a 6-foot-2, 236-pounder who was a seventh-round pick out of Oregon by the Eagles in 2016, joins the Niners on a one-year deal worth as much as $900,000.
Walker played one season in Philadelphia, starting three of 12 games. He then moved on to Arizona where he played 14 games in 2018 and 16 in 2019. In 2018, he didn’t play a single snap at linebacker, but had 353 snaps on special teams.
Then, last season, injuries opened the door for him and Walker started 11 games at inside linebacker and also played 70 percent of all special-teams snaps. He finished the season with 65 total tackles (five for loss) and a forced fumble.
ESPN noted Walker made significant strides this past season, especially improving in pass coverage. Wrote ESPN: “He was already an athletic linebacker in coordinator Vance Joseph’s system, but 2019 showed his on-field improvement.”
Walker is fast for an inside linebacker (he runs a 4.56 40-yard dash), and two of his best games in 2019 were against the 49ers, where the analytic website Pro Football Focus gave him high marks in both run defense and pass coverage.
As Walter Mitchell of SB Nation’s Revenge of the Birds (Cardinals) website noted, “To have two good games like that versus the 49ers vaunted running game is noteworthy.”
Fellow Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks told the Arizona Republic in November – when Walker was starting – that he had seen Walker improve as a teammate with both the Eagles and Cardinals.
“I know in Philly he was the guy who came in and called the defense,” said Hicks. “He’s always been that guy. I’ve seen him do it over and over and over again throughout the course of the years. It’s fun to see him playing at the level he’s playing at.”
Walker is expected to be the primary backup to middle linebacker Fred Warner.