The big shock of the Detroit Lions 2018 draft was when they selected safety Tracy Walker out of Louisiana in the third round. He was a nearly unheard of prospect, buried away in the Sun Belt conference.
Walker started the 2019 season buried once again, deep in the Lions depth chart getting minimal playing time. He played over a third of defensive snaps only once in the Lions’ first 12 contests, but did see a hugely expanded role late in the year as injuries began to pile up and the team began to look toward the future.
He impressed during his limited playing time—racking up 21 combined tackles, an interception and two passes defended—and many fans have already pegged the youngster as the successor to long time free safety Glover Quin. But is he really up for that challenge?
Walker very clearly has all of the raw tools needed for someone to succeed in the NFL. He is a great athlete with a wide coverage range. It is rare that he does not have the speed to keep up with his opponents. This does not mean that he does not get beaten, though.
The safety’s footwork still needs a lot of work. He shuffles his feet far too often, and it sometimes seems like his mind and his feet are not doing the same thing. One common issue that comes up for him is that he stumbles a bit before he tries to make a move in coverage.
Walker definitely has the acceleration needed to make plays but he needs to get out of his own way first.
He also has trouble mirroring the footwork of his opposition, which leads to him getting beaten and turned around by receivers when they make double moves or break on their routes. This especially becomes a problem in man coverage.
This is a pretty simple out route that every defensive back should be able to cover. Walker is in man coverage and backpedals off of the snap. The receiver breaks outside and the safety ends up stumbling backwards with his back to the quarterback. He loses any sort of defensive positioning he has and if quarterback Josh Rosen got a quick release off, then the receiver would have made an easy catch with real estate in front of him down the sideline. Every NFL defensive back should be able to cover this route, but mistakes like this happen far too often for Walker.
His instincts can often fail him as well. Walker is occasionally a few seconds too late to react while in deep coverage and can let receivers get behind him without providing help. When he is lined up as a free safety, the last line of the defense, this could lead to a disaster.
On this play against the Minnesota Vikings, Walker is covering the deep middle in zone coverage. A receiver to his left runs a deep post, and the safety should have been around to bracket him downfield. He gets caught with his eyes in the backfield, though, and does not see the receiver breaking over the top until it is too late. Had quarterback Kirk Cousins thrown a more accurate pass underneath the cornerback, this would have been a huge gain.
He got away with it for the most part in 2018, mostly because of his limited use, but if he plans on taking Quin’s role, then he will need to be better.
A lot of Walker’s problems have the same cause. His brain and body are not always on the same page, and his technique is a little sloppy. He is young and uncoordinated.
When he does get himself pointed in the right direction he is playmaker, though. Walker can cover so much ground in such a short period of time that he can close down ball carriers upfield to take them down for minimal gains.
Walker is lined up in man coverage against running back David Johnson on this play. He is lined up about 10 yards off of the line of scrimmage and has a lot of ground to cover once Rosen flips it over to his running back in the flat. Walker is able to crash down on Johnson fast and cut the play down for no gain
On this play, Walker was lined up as a deep safety. A Vikings receiver finds his way into a gap in the left out and makes a quick catch for a good gain. Walker is able to quickly close down on the receiver all the way from his deep spot, and tackle him to limit yards after catch. He closes down nearly 18 yards in a matter of seconds to mitigate a potential huge gain on the play.
His tackling could use some work, though. Walker will take a bad angle on occasion and will even overrun plays. While he does a great job closing down on ball carriers, he usually goes for the big hit rather than using his long arms to wrap up at the point of attack. This leads to riskier, more likely to miss, tackle attempts.
We did not see much of Walker last season, but when he was on the field he did a lot more good than bad. He has an incredible 6-foot-10 wingspan and athleticism that Matt Patricia and the Lions coaching staff could refine into a defensive star one day.
For now, though, Walker still has a lot of growth needed before he can take on Glover Quin’s role. He does not have the field vision and awareness that his predecessor has and did not show anywhere near the amount of ball-playing ability. As much as he flashed last year, there was still a lot of bad with the good. A move to strong safety should be in the cards, especially if rookie Will Harris or new free agent signing Andrew Adams prove to be the back line, center field safety the Lions need.
Walker is definitely a player that can play an important role on this defense for a long time, but unless he takes a big step this offseason, he still might not be the star that many expect him to be in 2019.