If Walker Walks, Stanford Tight End Could Appeal to 49ers

Cardinal's Zach Ertz likely to be available late in first round when Niners make their first pick in draft

With the NFL Combine next week in Indianapolis and the NFL Draft in April, this is the season for prognostication.

It’s the time NFL analysts, beat writers and Draftniks look at rosters and team needs, examine draft-eligible former college standouts and come up with perfect matches.

In the case of the San Francisco 49ers, it’s a difficult task.

The Niners, with a talented roster on a team that just went to the Super Bowl, don’t have glaring weaknesses that absolutely, positively must be filled. And, by drafting 31st in the first round, any player they target – or that might be a perfect fit for them – can be long gone by the time they get to select.

Yet often, there do appear to be fine matches.

Fox Sports’ Peter Schrager offered one scenario this week that makes a lot of sense:

Niners’ tight end Delanie Walker is an unrestricted free agent who has been an important piece of the team’s success story the past two seasons, as a second option behind Vernon Davis and a versatile athlete who can also play wideout and be a strong blocker. Yet keeping Walker would be costly, and San Francisco has several pending free agents who likely are higher priorities to keep, particularly safety Dashon Goldson and, perhaps,  defensive linemen Isaac Sopoaga or Ricky Jean Francois.

Walker earned a base salary of just over $1 million last season and has said he would like to stay in San Francisco, but the 49ers might go in another direction. A more affordable one.

That’s where Stanford tight end Zach Ertz comes in.

Schrager suggests that if the 49ers decide to let Walker leave as a free agent, Ertz – expected to be a low first-round or second-round pick – might be a cheaper, younger upgrade.

“The thought of Ertz – Stanford’s top target in 2012 – reuniting with (offensive coordinator) Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh is a scary one,” writes Schrager. “Ertz is big, athletic and has reliable hands. Compared often to Jason Witten (of Dallas), this could be a steal at 31.”

Roman and Harbaugh both were at Stanford to recruit Ertz and guide him through his first season of college football, and no doubt have kept their eyes on his development. Ertz announced in January that he would forgo his senior season and come out for the April draft.

Ertz this past season had 69 catches for 898 yards and six TDs. He also is 6-foot-6 and 252 pounds, and his presence would allow the 49ers to continue to run two tight-end sets, use he or Davis in versatile roles (as Roman loves to do) and potentially give the 49ers a pair of excellent tight ends similar to the New England Patriots' duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

Of course when it comes to the draft, 2+2 doesn’t always equal 4.

The match of Ertz and the 49ers makes sense, but so does the team drafting a defensive lineman, a wide receiver or a cornerback in the first round. All are areas where the team needs help now or for the future.

But the 49ers have the luxury of 14 points in the April draft. With a stockpile of choices, tight end will certainly be addressed at some point if the 49ers decide to let Walker walk.

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