In 2019, it looked like all the doors were opening for Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker to step through and become a huge component of this defense. He was playing with more confidence, he spoke with more confidence, and you could see he was becoming a more vocal leader in the locker room. Once Quandre Diggs was traded away, it was only a matter of time before Walker took over.
But 2020 has been a weird year. Late in training camp, 2019 third-round pick Will Harris started repping ahead of Walker during practices. And that has very clearly bled into the regular season. Not only has Harris gotten the official “start” over Walker—admittedly a meaningless designation—but Harris has now been on the field for 101 snaps to 93 for Walker.
Fans and analysts wouldn’t be raising a stink about such a minimal difference if there didn’t seem to be such a drastic level of talent between the two players. Walker has seen his play improve year after year, and he finished 2019 as the second-highest graded Lions defender by PFF. Meanwhile, Harris went through a lot of issues in his rookie season, and if the first two games of this season are any indication, he still has a lot to work through.
So why is this happening? Is this another funky version of last year’s pestering guard rotation? Lions coaches were asked exactly that this week.
First, here’s what head coach Matt Patricia had to say:
“In those games that Will had certain roles, Tracy had certain roles and we were going to rotate those guys through. If the snaps are off by 10 here or there, that’s going to happen based on some of the packages that are in and how the game goes, but try to keep it as balanced as possible with all of those guys that are in that situation. That’s just where we feel we’re at with it. Certainly for us, competition every single week with that. I think both players have made plays that they need to do a better job on, and they need to execute better. We just try to put whatever package we think will help us win that game out there at those times.”
Defensive coordinator Cory Undlin was asked a similar question on Tuesday, and, unsurprisingly, he gave a similar answer:
“Will and Tracy are both really good players, and we’re trying to utilize both in different packages. I’m not going to get into the specifics of each package, but we like both of them, and I like both of them. They’re trusted with their teammates.
As to whether this divvying of the snaps between the two will continue going forward, Undlin made it pretty clear: They’re both going to continue to play a lot.
“I will say this: It’s a really good problem to have when you have three safeties back there that you completely trust and depend on. And then what you’ve got to do is put them out there in packages or rotate them, so that they all can play and help you win. That’s what we’re trying to do, and obviously it hasn’t been perfect to this part right now—we’ve got to do a better job with those guys, as well—but they’re both going to play. All three of those guys are going to play.
“I know they were out there a lot, and they will continue to be out there a lot—both of them.”
The dynamic could potentially change when Jayron Kearse returns from the suspended list after Week 3, but for now, expect to see a lot of Tracy Walker and a lot of Will Harris, sometimes at each others’ expense.