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SANTA CLARA

It started with a handshake. A very firm handshake.

It was 2006, and one of the 49ers' draft choices, Vernon Davis, approached another as they prepared to get team physicals. "And I walked up like, &‘What's up, man? What's your name?'" Davis recounted. "He was like, &‘Delanie. Delanie Walker.' And when I shook his hand, I shook his hand real hard. He said, &‘Daaang, bro, why you gotta shake my hand so hard?' From that day, I knew he'd be a funny guy."

The two have been close friends ever since, despite their different pedigrees. Davis was the sixth overall pick in the draft, a can't-miss prospect from the University of Maryland with a movie star's smile and a weightlifter's body. Walker had played for two years at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California, then two more at obscure Central Missouri before joining the 49ers as a sixth-round selection, the 175th player overall.

Davis was a classic tight end, immediately penciled into the starting lineup. Walker would play tight end, too, but he'd have to toil on special teams as he made the conversion from wide receiver.

Five years later, they form one of the NFL's most versatile tight end combinations, and their bond is stronger than ever.

"They're like brothers," fellow San Francisco tight end Justin Peelle said. "They sit there and argue like brothers."

To an outsider, Davis and Walker seem very different in temperament. Davis is larger than life, the center of attention nearly everywhere he goes. He gets bit parts in films and personal audiences with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and even had enough charisma to build interest in the sport of curling for about five minutes during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Walker is engaging, too, but he is more subdued and approachable. He rarely makes headlines off the field.

Both of them insist Walker has a different side to his personality when he clocks out.

"I think I steal all his attention when I come around," Walker said with a laugh. "I'm quiet in the locker room, but outside I'm a totally different person. And I think that's why we get along so much."

Walker has spent considerable time in Washington, D.C., getting to know Davis' family and checking out his charitable endeavors, and the two frequently shadow one another in the Bay Area. When Davis took part in a panel discussion on art at the de Young Museum's Koret Auditorium in May 2010, Walker sat quietly in the back of the room, there to support his friend.

Along the way, they have helped each other considerably. Walker was always the affirmative voice in Davis' ear when the outspoken star got frustrated over playing time or catches. And

Davis spent a lot of time helping Walker learn the finer points of blocking, something he could largely ignore as a college wide receiver.

Asked to evaluate Walker's blocking as a rookie, Davis said: "Not so good. ... Delanie, when he'd lead-block, he'd go up in there sideways. His blocking is so far ahead from what it was when he first got here."

Which helps to explain why Walker is seeing the field more than ever this year. Coach Jim Harbaugh has always been known to involve his tight ends in the offense, and he feels he has one of the league's best tandems in San Francisco.

"In this modern era of football, the tight end position has evolved in many ways to a position that catches passes," Harbaugh said. "Those two guys block as well. It's important to them in the run game as well as in pass protection. Those are two tight ends that are great players and have the ability to really open up the entire playbook and utilize their skills."

Davis made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and recently set a franchise record for tight ends with his 34th career touchdown catch. Walker is more of a late bloomer, but is beginning to attract attention for his versatility. The Wall Street Journal analyzed 49ers game film earlier this season and reported that he had lined up in 15 different positions. Who knows how many he has added since then? The 49ers' official twitter feed recently asked followers to suggest a nickname for Walker. The consensus favorite was Option D — because he can do "all of the above."

Davis and Walker frequently play together in two-tight-end sets, and Harbaugh gives them plenty of option routes, allowing them to read the coverage and adjust accordingly. Both are faster than practically any outside linebacker, but physically difficult to handle for the average safety.

"Having a guy like Delanie along with myself, you can't stop both of us," Davis said. "You can put us both on the same side — who are you gonna cover? ... I mean, there's a few plays in a game where you see Delanie running up the seam and me taking the middle. They bite me, Delanie's gonna be open. They bite Delanie, I'm gonna be open. So it kind of works hand in hand."

They have been involved in some of the 49ers' biggest moments this year. It was Walker who caught the game-winning touchdown pass at Detroit. In a big victory over the Giants three weeks ago, Davis scored the touchdown that gave San Francisco the lead for good.

But while opposing defensive coordinators must spend a lot of time worrying about the Davis-Walker combination, the statistics don't really reflect their value.

In Harbaugh's ground-based offense, the 49ers rank 31st in the NFL in pass attempts (301, just one ahead of last-place Denver) and 29th in passing yards per game (179.9). Not surprisingly, the individual numbers are muted. Davis has 43 receptions for 484 yards and five touchdowns; Walker has 19 catches for 198 yards and three scores. Even their combined stats (62/682/8) compare unfavorably with tight ends in pass-oriented systems like New Orleans' Jimmy Graham (67/957/8) or New England's Rob Gronkowski (60/864/11).

Many observers have waited for Davis to vent over his modest production. It hasn't happened. He understands that sharing catches with Walker might hurt his numbers, but ultimately helps the team.

"I've had some success where I've gotten a lot of balls, a lot of yards and made the Pro Bowl and things like that," Davis said. "That's still what I want. But when you got a guy like Delanie, you always want him around. You don't want him to leave. ... If I got to say, I'd rather have Delanie here."

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.