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Delanie Walker's Diverse Skill Set Puts Him Among NFL's Most Underrated Players

Cian Fahey@CianafFeatured ColumnistJune 8, 2015

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Accurately identifying underrated players in the NFL is difficult.

It's much easier to recognize overrated players because the process that makes a player overrated involves pushing that player into the spotlight. Doing your own analysis of a player whom other analysts are championing doesn't take much time.

Finding an underrated player is more difficult because the process inverts somewhat. Instead of taking the potentially over-celebrated individual, you must wander the shadows of the league. You must present someone whom every other analyst—of which there are a seemingly endless number in the Internet age—either hasn't rated highly enough or hasn't mentioned at all.

Many, many analysts will list specific players as underrated, but too often the same names come up. How can you be underrated if you're mentioned as underrated every other minute? This happens because supposedly underrated players often fit a subconscious criteria.

Jordy Nelson and Justin Smith are the two most common examples.

Both Nelson and Smith played on championship contenders over recent years. Both were consistently overshadowed by the other stars who shared the field with them every week. Nelson had Aaron Rodgers, while Smith had Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith, among others.

It's easy to paint those players as underrated because they are known without always being visible in the spotlight. By comparing them to the bigger stars they play with, they look underappreciated.

Going beyond the second-level stars on contending teams, the other most popular choices for underrated players are offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Offensive linemen in general play a position that doesn't get adequate appreciation, while opinions on quarterbacks are so volatile and pushed to the extreme that everyone is simultaneously overrated and underrated at all times.

Instead of repeating names so often regurgitated that the exercise becomes futile, a truly underrated player needs to be someone who hasn't been celebrated enough by anyone.

At least...anyone except for himself.

That is what Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker did this week. Walker has been in the NFL for nine years. He spent most of his career with the San Francisco 49ers, acting as the second option behind Vernon Davis. He signed with the Titans in 2013 before enjoying a record-breaking season in 2014.

Those records are what Walker used to justify his grievance, per 247Sports' Terry McCormick:

Last year, I felt like I did more and no one cared. I broke records and scored touchdowns and no one cared. We've got to win more as a team. I think even if I have a good year and we don't have a good year as a team, who cares, right? But if we win together, then the individual guys get the accolades they deserve.

A record-breaking season can be a bit misleading as an individual term. Walker set franchise records, not league records, recording 63 receptions for 890 yards and four touchdowns. He ranked ninth among tight ends in receptions, fourth in yards and 16th in touchdowns.

While calling it a record-breaking season tends to overstate just how good Walker was, it's also unfair to judge him solely on his raw statistics.

For one thing, Walker missed a game with a concussion, so his numbers only came in 15 games against others who played all 16.

More significantly, Walker was rarely put in the best position to succeed because of the porous quality of the Titans' quarterback play last season—quarterback play that repeatedly cost him opportunities to add receptions and create yardage.

TargetsCatchable TargetsCatchesFailures at the Catchpoint
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Analytical Analysis through NFL.com

Thirty-nine times a quarterback threw a pass in the direction of Walker that would have at least required a spectacular catch for him to complete. Most of those passes were nowhere near the receiver, just tossed in his general direction.

Walker is a big-play threat on every catch he makes, and most of his routes worked down the field. Therefore, it's fair to think that the potential yardage he lost on these plays was relatively huge.

Of course, if Walker wasn't getting open, he could be part of the problem. That wasn't the case, though. Walker gets open as easily as any tight end in the NFL. He is a mismatch receiver who repeatedly ran away from linebackers and safeties while overpowering cornerbacks when facing them.

Walker caught 36 of 41 catchable targets when working against man coverage. Those receptions went for 495 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged 13.75 yards per catch against man coverage, with 14 plays going for gains of further than 15 yards.

He had seven 20-plus yard receptions against man coverage.

That explosiveness is what makes Walker such a difficult matchup for defenders. At 6'0" and 248 pounds, he isn't a towering target, but he is very thick with the ability to accelerate and turn like a running back. He also understands how to set up his routes and use his hands to release from the line of scrimmage.

Credit: NFL.com

On this play against the Baltimore Ravens late in the season, the Ravens are going to chip Walker at the line of scrimmage with one player before covering him with another. Linebacker Elvis Dumervil initially lines up across from Walker with safety Terrence Brooks lying in wait.

Despite the added attention, Walker is going to quickly get into his route.

Credit: NFL.com

Walker is slow to react to the snap, so Dumervil (5'11", 255 lbs) is able to quickly advance to push his hand into his chest. However, he is able to shift his weight and use his hands to negate the impact of Dumervil's strength. He pushes off his left foot while showing off controlled aggression with his right hand to knock Dumervil inside.

From there, Walker is able to advance past the linebacker's outside shoulder without being redirected. He is then confronted by Brooks.

Credit: NFL.com

A power disparity was always going to give Walker an advantage once he squared up to Brooks, but the speed at which the tight end discarded him wasn't a result of power. With his outstanding swim move, Walker showed off impressive technique, quickness and precision.

That allowed him to concentrate his power to move Brooks out of the way. He was able to gain inside positioning before using his acceleration to create separation down the seam.

Credit: NFL.com

After reaching back to catch the football, Walker turns to confront incoming safety Will Hill. Hill goes low to tackle Walker, but the tight end drops his shoulder and runs right through the defender. This became a simple 17-yard play for the Titans because of Walker's quality.

Pressing Walker at the line of scrimmage is what most defenses want to do because giving him a free release allows him to immediately accelerate into his routes.

Walker understands how to set up defenders who line up in off-coverage, but maybe more significantly, he is a very dangerous ball-carrier. According to Pro Football Focus, Walker had 414 yards after the catch last season while forcing 18 missed tackles.

Those are impressive numbers for a tight end.

Drops are the only significant concern with Walker. He has consistently had focus drops in space throughout his whole career, but often his failures at the catch point come in difficult situations. Walker is willing to attack the football through tight coverage and work the middle of the field while absorbing big hits.

His lack of height limits him at times. But his ball skills are impressive, and his feet work in concert with his hands. Walker was repeatedly forced to adjust to poorly placed passes from his quarterbacks last year, giving him plenty of opportunities to show off his ability.

Credit: NFL.com

At 30 years of age, Walker is still in his prime. After playing an important but suppressed role in the 49ers offense, he has established himself as a high-quality starting tight end in Tennessee. He is clearly the team's best receiver, ahead of Kendall Wright, but he is also a quality blocker.

Walker can line up as a fullback or be used to set the edge on outside runs.

He isn't like Jimmy Graham or Julius Thomas. Walker's skill set is much closer to that of Rob Gronkowski's and Martellus Bennett's in terms of style. He's obviously not as good as Gronkowski, but he should be considered in that second tier of tight ends following from afar.

In truth, what Walker said about his team's success hurting his individual reputation is true. He deserves more attention for his play, but new quarterback Marcus Mariota should have a greater impact on that than he can.

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