For three consecutive seasons from 2015 to 2017, Delanie Walker was a Pro Bowler.
For the last three seasons, though, the talented tight end has played in a grand total of just eight games.
After missing all of 2020, Walker is intent on returning to an NFL roster in 2021.
Though confident he'll find a squad when training camp kicks off, Walker believes potential suitors are apprehensive about signing him due to lingering questions about his ankle, which resulted in him finishing the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the Tennessee Titans on injured reserve.
"Right now, I couldn't tell you who I will be playing for or what teams are looking at me," Walker said recently on the Talking w/TD podcast with Turron Davenport. "They talk to me, but at the end of the day, I feel like they think the ankle is a problem and my age. Teams are really not trying to give me a good deal, I feel like. We'll see what happens when the time and need [are right], and they really need a tight end, we'll see what happens."
Walker, 36, recently took a trip to where it all began for him, visiting the 49ers, who drafted him in 2006 and whom he played for in the first seven seasons of his career. Thereafter, Walker moved to the Titans and his career took off as an underrated but productive pass-catcher, hauling in 60 or more balls in each season from 2013-2017 and producing four straight years of 800 or more yards receiving.
Everything came to a crashing halt in the 2018 season opener, though. That's when Walker broke his ankle and was forced to miss the remaining 15 games of the season. A comeback attempt in 2019 was to little avail, as Walker played in seven games, caught just 21 passes for 215 yards and concluded the campaign on IR once more.
In March of 2020, the Titans cut Walker. It was a move the veteran understands and holds no ill will over.
"They thanked me for everything I've done, we went on with our way," Walker said. "My agent was kind of upset, but I didn't really get upset. I just felt like it's business. I didn't perform at the highest level for the last two years, so I understood that. And they paid me a lot of money, so it made sense to me."
Now it makes sense for Walker to join a contender. That's his hope, anyway, and he believes that when training camps commence -- in late July -- opportunity will follow.
"I want to play football. I feel like I need to get a Super Bowl ring, so my objective is really to try to go to a team that's a contender. But it is the NFL, you never know what team can be a contender, so my options are open," Walker said. "But the thing is, it's hard to try to stay in shape by yourself. When you go to OTAs and you do all the little minicamp, that gets you prepared for football. Then you get this little break just to stay in shape to come back into training camp. So my goal is just to try to get into the best shape I can possibly get in. Cause I know that opportunity gonna come where someone's gonna need a tight end for training camp. And that's where my opportunity's gonna come."
An opportunity for Walker will allow him to hit the field for the first time in a long time and give him a chance to do away with any doubt regarding his ankle. Candidly speaking, Walker admitted he has doubts of his own.
"Definitely no further complications," Walker said. "But, again, I haven't been hit, haven't played in a game. Right now when I say I'm running, and breaking and catching passes, I feel like the same Delanie Walker two years ago. But again, you know, I'm a realist. I won't sit here and be like, 'Oh, shoot, I can out there and play.' I can go out there and play, but would I take a hit, would that be a problem? I do not know. I think that's a concern teams have, but at the end of the day, I'm a football player, I'm gonna go out there and give it all I got and I feel like the ankle will hold up. I just need the opportunity to go out and prove it."
As Walker looks forward to proving his ankle is able and his talent remains, he's been able to look back on what he misses most after a full year away from football. Asked by Davenport what he missed most about the game and what he loved most about it, Walker reflected on the camaraderie left behind.
"I think it's missing them guys. Just being in the locker room with my dudes, being able to tell stories with them. I miss that," he said. "I think that's what kept me young, being in that locker room."
As for what he longs for most on the field, Walker remembers the thrill of the crowd and his recollection makes it clear just how much he wants to return to the game.
"When it was third down and it was third down and I knew that ball was coming to me and you make that catch and you hear that crowd just get up on they feet and roar. I miss that. I don't think there's nothing in the world that can replace that feeling," Walker said. "You can only know that when you play in front of 80,000 people. There's just something about it."
If Walker is right in his prognostication, he'll get a chance later this month to show his ankle is healed up and sturdy enough to weather the rigors of the NFL. Should that happen, it might not be long before he hears that roar of the crowd once more.