49ers linebacker Joe Walker a special teams upgrade?

Linebacker Joe Walker #59 of the Arizona Cardinals against fullback Kyle Juszczyk #44 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Linebacker Joe Walker #59 of the Arizona Cardinals against fullback Kyle Juszczyk #44 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The 49ers weren’t particularly active in free agency, yet former Cardinals linebacker Joe Walker could provide both depth and special teams help.

One of the better parts of the San Francisco 49ers being a Super Bowl contender is they didn’t have to be overly aggressive on the free-agent market entering 2020.

As a result, players like veteran linebacker Joe Walker ended up being the “big-ticket” signings made by general manager John Lynch and Co.

The Niners’ special teams unit last year wasn’t terrible. In some regards, it was excellent. San Francisco’s offense had an average starting field position on opponents’ 32.1-yard lines, which was third best in the league. Much of that is credited to special teams, particularly the gunners and coverage units.

As a whole, Football Outsiders ranked San Francisco’s special teams unit 12th in the league in 2019.

So there’s room for improvement, and one figures that’s what Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan are hoping to get out of Walker.

Walker, 27 years old, joined the league as a Round 7 NFL Draft choice by the Philadelphia Eagles out of Oregon. He tore his ACL during the preseason his rookie year and made only a marginal impact as a backup the following season. The Eagles placed Walker on their practice squad in 2018, yet the Arizona Cardinals elected to sign him to their active roster instead where he’d have a productive 2019 campaign as an 11-game starter:

Joe Walker Defense & Fumbles Table
2 yr2 yrARI301110.072462651
1 yr1 yrPHI12310.0106400

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/5/2020.

San Francisco is already loaded at linebacker, thanks to the presence of starters Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw and Kwon Alexander. Yet that’s not the reason why the Niners brought aboard the 6-foot-2, 236-pound former Duck.

If anything, Walker will be asked to provide some added thump on the 49ers’ special teams coverage units.

Why Joe Walker improves with 49ers in 2020

Walker never flashed a ton of defensive prowess during his stint with both the Eagles and Cardinals. In 2017, his overall Pro Football Focus defensive grade was a lowly 38.8, while his 2019 mark was 46.2.

But it’s good to know Walker at least has experience here, should the Niners suffer a lot of attrition at the position.

On special teams, however, Walker has shown some serious growth. While his defensive PFF grades aren’t great, his special teams marks of 44.8, 64.0 and 71.0 from 2017 through 2019, respectively, show some serious improvement.

And he’s still young enough to take some additional pointers from San Francisco’s special teams coach, Richard Hightower.

Why Joe Walker regresses with 49ers in 2020

Special teams are important, yes. But rare are the players who can make a 53-man roster based on their special teams abilities alone. Perhaps the best examples, aside from the specialists, are players like fellow linebacker Mark Nzeocha, although even he displayed a knack for some defensive playmaking abilities last year.

Walker won’t get a lot of looks on the defensive side of the ball, and the nature of San Francisco’s defensive competitions in training camp could ultimately lead to the veteran being left out for players who make a much bigger splash as defensive reserves.

Even if Walker is the better player on special teams. It’s always important to recognize the fluidity of this third unit on the 53-man roster.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster

Given Walker’s one-year, $900,000 contract with zero in dead money, it would be very simple and easy for San Francisco to move on should he not make the cut.

As such, he’s squarely on the roster bubble.

Yet there’s a prime competitor with whom Walker will face in training camp, second-year linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair.

Al-Shaair was a nice story in 2019, coming from the undrafted ranks all the way to making the 53-man roster his rookie season. Yet while that was positive, Al-Shaair struggled in tackling and was more a liability than anything else when given chances to contribute on the defensive side of the ball.

What this means, essentially, is both Walker and Al-Shaair will be competing for the same spot when training camp rolls around.

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It’s possible, perhaps likely Walker gets the nod based on his superior special teams abilities. Yet the Niners could also enjoy the maturation from Al-Shaair, too, relegating Walker to an excess-commodity role once Week 1 rolls around.