Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker to come back for 2021 NFL season

Sep 9, 2018; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker (82) avoids the tackle of Miami Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain (28) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Former San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker is coming back for the 2021 NFL season, and will be free to sign with any team on the open market this offseason.

The three-time Pro Bowler turns 37 in August, but is eyeing a resurgent year after taking off 2020 to recover from two injury-riddled prior seasons.

Delanie Walker intending to return to NFL in 2021

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the news of Walker’s plans to continue his NFL career, which is somewhat of a surprise considering his recent history and advanced football age:

Prior to suffering injuries that limited him to only one game in 2018 and seven the following year, Walker had been named to three straight Pro Bowls and was a second-team All-Pro player in 2015.

During his time with the 49ers, Walker rose from relative obscurity as a sixth-round pick to a key contributor in San Francisco’s resurgence. Once Jim Harbaugh took over as coach, Walker played two seasons under him and established himself as one of the best run-blocking tight ends, even aligning at fullback at times.

Walker saw his time in the Bay Area come to an end following the 2012 campaign. All he did after that, though, was capitalize on his increased opportunities as a pass-catcher in Tennessee. His peak came in his third season with the Titans, when Walker amassed 94 receptions for 1,008 yards. He had 800-plus yards receiving in each of the two years thereafter.

But obviously those achievements are in the rear-view mirror. How much does Walker have left? What can teams reasonably expect from him in 2021? How does his value stack up with the other top free agents at his position?

Related: Top NFL free agents of 2022

Delanie Walker’s value in 2021 free agency market

Delanie Walker's value in 2021 free agency market
Apr 3, 2018; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker (82) takes the stage during the Titans uniform reveal event held at Broadway and 1st Avenue. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean Appeal via USA TODAY NETWORK

The tight end free-agent class really isn’t that strong. All-time great Rob Gronkowski is expected to remain with Tom Brady and the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so he doesn’t necessarily count as someone on the open market.

We saw how refreshed Gronkowski was after one year of retirement, which is the equivalent of what Walker did as he worked his way back from the injuries that have set him back of late. Although he’s not the caliber of player Gronk is — let’s face it, that’s a high bar to meet — Walker could be similarly revitalized after letting his body heal.

The NFLonCBS underscored just how elite Walker was in the passing game when he was last healthy, as he kept company with Gronkowski and Kansas City Chiefs superstar Travis Kelce:

As for the other free agents at tight end this offseason, former Titan Jared Cook — who left Tennessee right before Walker arrived — got released by the New Orleans Saints and is available. However, Cook is also getting up there in age, as he turns 34 in April.

Hunter Henry is the only other big name, and whether he returns to the Los Angeles Chargers or goes elsewhere, he’s likely the only one who’ll receive a big payday and long-term contract.

All this is to say, especially in a year where the salary cap is lower, a player like Walker should have no shortage of suitors, particularly those with championship aspirations.

Walker has the versatility, experience and the bargain price to be among the most appealing tight ends who can sign anywhere. His skill set should help his price a little, but the shrunk cap and his lack of game experience over the past few years will hurt his leverage some.

Given that he only will play probably one or two more seasons, expect Walker to take a modest, one-year prove-it deal and play for a Super Bowl contender.

Related: Predicting NFL playoff teams and Super Bowl 2022 winner