All signs point to a bright future for second-year safety Tracy Walker, but stepping into a bigger role is no easy task.
While Lions fans were at first skeptical of the practically unheard of third-round pick, Walker came out of the gate running his rookie season. What began as more of a special teams role turned into splitting snaps with starters. From deep safety to slot corner to linebacker, the 23 year old’s versatility and expansive skillset turned heads across the league.
When the Lions announced the decision to move on from Glover Quin this offseason, it was a pretty clear sign they’re ready to rely on Walker, despite his limited snaps in 2018. But he’s still got some competition for that open starting position next to Quandre Diggs—is he up for the challenge?
Expectations before 2018
Though fans might’ve been initially a tad confused, the team was absolutely stoked to select Walker in the 2018 draft. General manager Bob Quinn explained it was his versatility—a word you’ll hear a lot when it comes to Walker—that made him so appealing.
Looking at his snap breakdown in his final season at Louisiana, it’s easy to see where Quinn’s coming from. In 832 snaps, Pro Football Focus found noted Walker played 300 at deep safety, 203 at slot cornerback, 129 at box safety, 105 at linebacker, 79 at outside cornerback and 16 as an edge defender. Essentially every position besides defensive tackle. It was clear Walker had abilities across the field, and Quinn explained on DetroitLions.com just after the draft how Walker would fit in on the defense.
“I think he’s going to play safety for us, but in terms of some of our matchup, position groupings, you may see him down there in the box a little bit in man-coverage, might see him in the deep part of the field. So, I don’t think you’re going to see him outside at corner, but I think in the middle of the field he’s going to be a versatile guy that we can use in the deep part as well as down.”
Walker was expected to spend the season growing and learning, especially from his teammates. Throughout preseason, veterans were spotted coaching Walker as he searched for his footing in the NFL. Between Quin, Diggs and Tavon Wilson, there was no shortage of talent on hand to offer experienced advice.
Actual role in 2018
2018 stats: 16 games (0 starts): 21 tackles, one interception, two passes defended
PFF grade: 89.8 (not enough snaps to qualify for rankings)
Playing a total of 267 snaps, or 27 percent of defensive plays, Walker shined during his limited time on the field. According to PFF, he and defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand earned the two highest grades in a season by a rookie defender for the Lions, Walker coming in hot at 89.8 overall and Hand at 87.4.
The Lions took advantage of that aforementioned versatility his first season. While Walker played most of his snaps at deep safety, 202, he also played 37 at box safety, 20 at slot cornerback, seven at wide cornerback and one on the defensive line. He spent 86.2 percent of his snaps at free safety Weeks 1-9, then 70.5 percent Weeks 10-17. His role expanded as injuries piled up later in the season. Walker also earned the highest tackling grade last season among his teammates at 90.6.
Again, with limited snaps, Walker didn’t have much of a chance to make any real memorable plays, aside from this clutch moment against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 2:
Though negated by a defensive holding call, it was still evidence Walker has the ability to get it done in high-pressure moments.
Outlook for 2019
Contract status: Signed through 2021
Walker receives no shortage of accolades from analysts, coaching staff and teammates alike. NFL.com’s Adam Rank predicts Walker will be the Lions’ next breakout star. Diggs said he’s got the “total package” as a physical guy who wants to learn. While it’s easy to predict Walker will just take over Quin’s duties, Patricia’s now got multiple tools to change up his defensive strategy between players like Walker, Diggs, Wilson, free agent signee Andrew Adams and incoming rookie Will Harris. He boasts a solid rookie season and an upward trajectory. Walker is the most likely candidate for that starting position across from Diggs, and with the bar set high, we may see him push himself to the next level this year for a standout season.