Aaron Walker diversifies the offense
Since the closure of this year’s 2003 NFL draft the speculation on the San Francisco 49ers is apparent when trying to figure out why they drafted a tight end with Eric Johnson, Jed Weaver and Mark Anelli on the roster. Recent acquisition Jed Weaver was thought to be the starting tight end in conjunction with Eric Johnson as the starting offensive duo in sets of two that Dennis Erickson likes to mix in to his offensive game plan. You can count on seeing more two tight end sets as Erickson favors this as a different option that the 49ers have not readily applied.
When I think back on the great tight ends the 49ers have had the one that always comes to mind for me is Brent Jones. He was the definition of a true tight end probably one of the best in the business in my opinion, there were few that equaled his value to a team. When crunch time was near the fellow quarterbacks of Joe Montana and Steve Young knew where to go with the ball.
Brent Jones in my opinion personifies what a real tight end should be. A blocking and catching specialist all in one. Unfortunately when you look at the tight ends of today you don’t find many with both abilities anymore but only one being a real strength, so many teams are forced to compensate by carrying more than one tight end with these one-dimensional abilities.
Greg Clark was another such tight end that proved to be a bulldozer but struggled a bit in making catches and had many durability questions. Justin Swift also followed suit with this and was deemed expendable as well. In comes Eric Johnson out of Yale as a seventh round draft pick the last pick of Bill Walsh’s tenure as a general manager, and he proves to be the exception to the rule so far.
Playoff victories and Super Bowls hinge on these talented individuals my friends. We take these athletes for granted and focus too much on the playtime of our wide receivers and running backs. Tight ends live a very anti-glorious lifestyle in comparison to some of the more highlighted offensive positions. Little do we know though that it is the tight end that is the most deadly on third down situations and inside the red zone. They have knack of finding separation and seams in the defense that others happen to overlook.
It is the duty of a tight end to do a variety of dirty tasks along the offensive line, they are like linebackers on a defense that hang back and wait for opportunity to happen or transform into something. The tight end takes what is presented to him and runs with it when it presents itself.
The 49ers back in April almost lost their emergency back-up tight end and long snapper in Brian Jennings as he visited the Detroit Lions under Steve Mariucci for possible employment. As a restricted free agent the 49ers were slow to sign Jennings despite his exemplary playing at the position that very few have a talent at playing. The situation as usual lately with the 49ers was very aggravating in us taking such a calculated chance in losing such a fine athlete in Jennings.
For three seasons the 49ers have carried Brian Jennings and when the time came to pay the piper they played second fiddle to Detroit. Just two months before the time of free agency began the 49ers made Jennings an offer for one-year and $605,000 dollars. This was done of course in order to retain his rights, but what is mystifying to me and has become the norm for the 49ers is that all they offered him was a one-year contract. It seems to me that one-year contracts are the way of the future for the 49ers, it tells me something about the management of the team now as Bill Walsh slowly makes his exodus from the team once and for all.
It is most troubling that you go and sign such a qualified athlete for just one-year which in hindsight ticks the player off in believing that his services are not all that valuable to deserve a contract of more than one year. The Lions offered Jennings a $805,000 contract with a $200,000 signing bonus. Jennings, 26, has played in all 16 games in each of his three seasons as a 49er, this type of durability and consistency you would think deserves to be rewarded.
Although Jennings has been seldom used in a tight end role he still has shown flashes that he is comfortable in that position when called upon. His steady duties of long snapping have been flawless to say the least. Former head coach Steve Mariucci realizing this and needing the position filled on his roster took a bite at getting Brian Jennings. The 49ers in the seventh round of the 2000 NFL draft selected the former Arizona State athlete. Mariucci had nothing really to lose in offering Jennings a piece in Detroit.
The San Francisco 49ers though realized that the market out there in long snappers was far from appealing and chose to match the offer that the Detroit Lions had to Jennings securing his rights for the season. The flirtation with signing with another team again became headline news following Tai Streets and his inability to get a deal done with the New York Jets as a restricted free agent.
“Brian Jennings is an integral part of our kicking game and we felt it was important for us to keep him. We hope that he remains a 49er for a long time,” said General Manager Terry Donahue.
Well my friend you have a funny way of showing it with a one-year contract. The normal series of events is for the 49ers to resign as many players as possible to one-year contracts, it brings to the forefront of how budget slashing minded the ownership has become in regards to the team. Although cap friendly and everything one-year contracts in my opinion just delays the inevitable and casts doubts on a players mind that make free agency all the more appealing come the term of that contract.
When you look at another one-year signing you see the former Wisconsin Badger in Mark Anelli. The 2002 NFL season was not at all kind to this individual as he remained on the 53-man active roster for three weeks and then was waived, and then signed to the practice squad. He then was signed back to the active roster, waived again and signed back to the practice squad where he finally finished the season.
This big and bold tight end in the mold of former tight end Greg Clark was picked primarily for his great blocking abilities, but he really never got to display those abilities because he was beaten out by former tight end Justin Swift for the back-up position behind Eric Johnson.
I had the honor of meeting both Anelli and his family while in Stockton at the 49ers last training camp there. They are a close nit family that takes enormous pride in their son’s personal achievements in making the 49er roster. It was a wonderful feeling being around these people because it sheds light on how real these people are in comparison with us. Being an athlete in the NFL never changes the dynamics of what makes a family it simply strengthens it with tremendous pride and gives it a distinction sort of that makes others envy it from a far.
“It was definitely a roller coaster ride for me,” said Anelli following a Monday workout. “I remember showing up at the facility to get a ride to the airport so I can go home for the bye weekend. I get there and find out they are releasing me. That was a shocker. ‘It was like Hi Mom, hi Dad, I got released. How’s it going?’”
After being released Anelli did some real soul searching and sought the advice of his fellow teammates along the offensive line. He soon realized that he had to get his personal business in order especially his physical self if he was to make ground in being on the active roster with the San Francisco 49ers. It was here that Anelli concentrated his efforts and was determined to get his weight in order and work on his conditioning.
“I came in last year at 273 pounds, overweight, out of shape, not used to the system and the way things were done here,” Anelli said. “I basically spent the whole year getting in shape. I’m down to 245 pounds and it’s a night-and-day difference for me.”
This is what happens to many rookies that are on the swing when entering professional sports for the first time. Not only do you have to learn all the written material there is to study and execute but you must also be in top physical form to withstand the rigors of playing the game at such a high level. Being in top physical shape is priority number one and the 49ers in round-a-about way were letting Anelli know that his status with them was in jeopardy due to his inattentiveness to his physical conditioning.
These indirect hints are used almost in way to teach a rookie to pick up on the real expected things that should come automatic and without question. The 49ers seem to use this type of mental hazing to get an athlete to turn around in a hurry. It has it’s function in getting a player to rethink why they are there that’s for sure and if you are real fortunate the veterans will take pity on you and give you the needed advice you lacking to begin with.
“He was just too big when he came in here,” said 49ers strength coach Terrell Jones. “Mark is a great worker and probably always has been. He just needed to be smarter about it. He changed how he ate, what he ate and became smarter about his body. He did everything that he needed to do and it shows. He’s quicker on the field, his patterns are crisper and his change of direction is much better. This is a different level than college and sometimes it takes awhile to adjust.”
Now is Anelli’s time to make a great first impression all over again, now is the time to make great strides because now he has tremendous competition in veteran Jed Weaver and newly drafted Aaron Walker. This will be probably one of the closest competitions in camp as all three battles to be the back up to Eric Johnson. It is a prize that they all want and getting playing time will not be a problem considering that Dennis Erickson is a proponent of using two tight end sets a lot in his offenses.
“I feel that I’m walking the tight rope. I’m still busting my butt everyday because everything I do matters,” added Anelli. “In one sense that part is nothing new: I know I have to prove myself on the field. But this year I’m a little more prepared and there’s a little less uncertainty for me.”
Somewhere one of these tight ends will not make the team but be eliminated; this overbearing weight will be applied directly to Anelli as he has the most to lose right now. But the reality of professional football is how well you perform out on the field, every play is diagnosed and looked at and every thing you do has to be executed to the very best of your ability, there is no room for error in the NFL. I like Anelli a lot and wish him and his family the very best this season, he’ll need them more than ever as mini-camps and training camp resume.
“We have a good group of guys and we understand that it’s not a personal thing,” says Anelli. “We’re all fighting for a job that’s just parts of the business w are in. It’s part of the deal.”
Florida’s Tight End Aaron Walker at 6-5 and 252 pounds
The San Francisco 49ers in the fifth round with the 161st overall pick in the 2003 NFL draft drafted Aaron Walker. He has been compared to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis and he has run the 40 in 4.68. This is a tight end that came out of an average class in this draft and was projected to go in the third round just after Tennessee’s Jason Witten and Iowa’s Dallas Clark. Great tight ends in the league today can be traced to popular names such as Jeremy Shockey, Jeramy Stevens and Randy McMichael to say the least.
Strengths: This is a guy that has incredible size, athleticism, quickness and hands. He presents a big target with strength and bulk. He will use his body to shield off defenders and has the size to overpower linebackers in coverage and the speed to stretch the seam.
He has proven the ability to catch the ball while on the run and over his head. He has just the right size and strength to be a good blocker at the NFL level. He very well could develop into a solid in-line blocker in the league.
Weaknesses: He did not get a lot of repetitions or experience as a blocker in Florida’s offense. He will need to improve his technique and leverage in this category. He doesn’t really take great angles and gets too high at the point of attack on occasion. Has been inconsistent in sustaining his blocks and needs to become better at finding soft spots in zones as a receiver. He also lacks great understanding of certain coverage schemes and will have to work on those as well.
Overall: Walker was a full time starter at Florida for two solid seasons and is very underrated to say the least. He will have work to do on improving his overall awareness such as route running skills and getting leverage as a blocker. But he still has time to add more strength and bulk to his frame as well. He will compete someday for a starting position and could very well be the primary blocker or receiver opposite of Eric Johnson this season. Regardless he will certainly have a positive impact upon special teams play this season.
For the Florida Gators Walker has caught a career-high 27 passes for 376 yards and four touchdowns last season. He was also an outstanding high school football and baseball player. He was even projected to be a second-round selection in baseball’s amateur draft but the thought of starting out in the minor leagues for a long time didn’t generate a lot of interest. Getting instant gratification with getting drafted by the NFL had more appeal to Walker than baseball because he wants to contribute right away and make a difference.
Walker is a four-time All Academic SEC selection, Walker closed his Gator career by playing in 46 games and recording 56 receptions for 718 yards and nine touchdowns. He also played for the Gator baseball team as it’s designated hitter.
“Aaron is a guy who really has a great upside at tight end. When he was there with Steve, they didn’t use a tight end nearly as much as they do now. A year ago when he was a junior, he was pretty good, but he didn’t catch as many balls. This year they used the tight end a lot more in the offense. What he has on the upside is that he can run,” said Dennis Erickson.
“I believe they have him at 4.7 at the combine, which is awfully good for a tight end. He’s 6-5, 252 I believe. He’s a guy that can really develop. What we want to do, as far as route running and so forth, we have Eric of course; is that this guy could come in and be our third or second tight end and really create some problems in the passing game for people. He’s a guy that is obviously going to get bigger and stronger. If you look at his body, he can really develop in the next year or two, where he could be 265 pounds and can run routes and block. He’s played a lot the last two years, in particularly this year, because of the nature of what they did offensively.”
So you have the addition of a quality and future star tight end in the mix for the 49ers. Certainly every weapon available will be needed in this offense to counteract the attention that wide receiver Terrell Owens receives on a daily basis in the NFL. It will be up to players like Walker to draw attention away from Owens and allow the team to have second and third options to throw to in this offense. It cannot be stressed enough that finding alternatives to Owens in the passing game will be a vital aspect in improving this offense.
Aaron has already participated in several 49er mini-camps where he is trying to learn the dynamics and playbook of the 49er offense. What should be strength though for Walker will be how well he does in handling the big dictionary the 49ers call a playbook. That will determine if he is truly ready for the next stage in his career. Walker has a tremendous work ethic and can be expected to work day and night until he masters many aspects of that book. The mental challenges for Walker should poise no problem when considering his mental capacity in being a National Honor Society member.
“We just weren’t used a lot in the passing game until my senior year,” said Walker at the conclusion of 49er mini-camp. “So I need to really get back home and work on my route running and catching the football before I come back to the next camp.”
This is a big guy folks and he will fit in somewhere nicely in our offense, you can bet on Dennis Erickson using him to his advantage in getting mismatches going one on one with linebackers. Walker carries a tremendous work ethic and will be working hard at trying to improve and polish off some of the weaknesses that plagued him in college.
“I came into this weekend with the expectation of learning as much offense as I could,” Walker said. “I was with the Lions at the senior bowl, so I had a head start in some of the terminology.”
Being a mature player is also something that Aaron has one up on the rest of the rookies because he is a father as well. He is already married and has a 10-month old daughter and has spent a great deal of his time volunteering as a tutor at local elementary schools. This will in all aspects help him make the breach over from college to the NFL. Tuly one has to appreciate at how mature someone can become with added responsibilities that are brought about by circumstances in life. Aaron will do everything he can to provide for the new family that he has and make a living for them in a way that translates into fame and fortune.
“I noticed how the veteran tight ends carried themselves here as professionals,” said Walker. I’m just a rookie and still have to prove myself, but the veterans were extremely helpful.”
With mini-camps in full swing the time for Aaron Walker is now in showing his coaches that he is worthy of being out on the playing field. Even though he can take some advice and witness how the veterans are carrying themselves, he knows still deep inside it is up to him ultimately to beat them out of a position and a job.
Mini-camps have been in full swing this month and will continue to be in session until we see training camp begin in July. The most notable being that the 49ers will not be playing in Stockton, California where the have played the last five years and have given all of their fans excess to interact and be a part of the real 49er experience. I happen to have gone to the very last training camp played there and couldn’t believe the atmosphere that the 49ers provide for their fans.
It was a joy to be a part of that experience one I’ll never ever forget thanks to my close friend in Julie Bedford who lives just outside of San Francisco. I was provided with a VIP pass to go out on the field and witnessed the magic of being a 49er fan. This is something so many will miss and be left without now that the 49ers have uprooted there and are now training back at their headquarters in Santa Clara.
Many people say “what is the big deal; most teams have closed practice sessions anyway.” We’ll let me tell you the difference folks it is because we have been blessed that the 49er organization has always taken a interest in pleasing and catering to the fans that helped make them so popular. Now many feel abandoned and lost to realize that it is all over as there will be no public access at the Santa Clara practice facility because of lack of parking and seats in and around the field.
Even though the 49ers have made concessions to the fans and will hold a couple of public practices it does little to remedy the reality that fans will only be allowed to see a few public appearances of the team that has always been there for it’s fans. Even though it is common for other teams to hold private practices and training camps it would be beneficial to both sides if there was more of an attempt to have more interaction with fans and to hold more public autograph sessions and football seminars.
In mini-camp Dennis Erickson has been impressed with the way that mini-camp has transpired and to see that the players are responding well to what is asked of them. He has tried to keep things the same in many ways and has applied his own finishing touches on various stages of the playbook. But overall you’d be surprised to know that the 49ers will look and feel like the 49ers of old, just well trimmed from the unnecessary fat that plagued the team in play calling and communication.
“A lot of improvement from the first one. It’s like I mentioned to you before, we did some different things in the camp as far as movement and things like that with our fullback and extra tight end when we’re in two tights,” Erickson said. “It’s a time for them to improve and also a time for us to go in there and look at what we want to keep and what we want to throw out. It was a good camp. We were better at this one than we were at the last one. It was fun.”
What has been a priority lately for Erickson has been the playing time of fullback Fred Beasley. He has a new plan for Beasley that will involve him more in the offense. I have always wanted Beasley to have more of an impact upon our offense but he has had his role diminished to simply blocking for too many years. Beasley provides a beneficial weapon in the passing game and should be used more as such. Erickson spotted this from day one and considers Beasley one of the most talented fullbacks in the league today.
“Fred Beasley has really picked up movement so we can use him in a lot more situations than he has been in the past. You have a football player like that; you want to have him playing as much as you can,” Erickson said.
“And I’m really happy with the rookies. I really am. Anthony Adams can move. That’s what we expected. Andrew Williams of course got hurt. He’s going to have surgery on his hand. Hopefully we can get it casted and be here for the June camp. Brandon Lloyd, as I mentioned, has been a real pleasant surprise. As is Arnaz Battle, who is learning the position. He’s a very strong, big athlete. He’s very physical. I think it will show up more when the pads are on. The whole group, even the free agents, the offensive linemen that we got, Schindler and some of those guys, they are a pretty darn good group. We just have to wait and see as time goes on.”
So there it is folks another mini-camp and established progress being made by the 49ers; still burning issues remain as to Terrell Owens contract and the fact that the 49ers still have a secondary problem after not drafting a cornerback in this last draft. There are still questions at quarterback with the waiving of Cade McNown and still issues that point to the closing of the training camp doors to the public.
I for one am appalled at the actions the 49ers have taken to close down such a high profile setting as it was in Stockton and make little attempt to try and find accommodations for fans to visit and watch the team in Santa Clara. I can understand the valid reasons in distance, office space, transportation and conditions on the field; they were all good reasons for leaving. But to shut the door on fans that make the journey every year or even every day is unacceptable. Where there is a will there is a way.