The Detroit Lions have 13 players that are set to hit free agency this March, but none may be bigger than safety Tracy Walker.
Walker opened training camp during his rookie season as the Lions' third-string safety. As fall camp progressed, he worked his way up the depth chart and eventually found his way onto the field as a single-high free safety. When given the opportunity to play, he found success and showed glimpses of high-level talent.
In his second season, then-coach Matt Patricia inserted Walker into the starting lineup, but reduced his free safety role, using him more in the box, and Walker’s play dipped as he got put into spots that didn’t best utilize his skill set. By year three, Patricia continued using Walker in the box, now over half his snaps, and this once again led to Walker coming up short of expectations.
Year four brought in a new Lions coaching staff and with them came new opportunity, as well as a familiar role that allowed him to once again use his skills in a positive manner.
This is the latest installment in Pride of Detroit’s free agent profiles series, and if you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here: Charles Harris, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tim Boyle, Alex Anzalone, Josh Reynolds, and KhaDarel Hodge
Expectations heading into 2021
Following a 2020 season in which Walker was performing well below expectations on the field, he was also processing through some intense life events off the field, including dealing with the nationally publicized murder of his cousin Ahmaud Aubrey and becoming a first-time father.
“At times it was tough,” Walker said of his hectic 2020. “It was very hard to try to overcome, especially when you’re getting thrown out there just to go try and make a play. So at times, it was difficult, but like I said, I’ve got to step up and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. I’ve got to play the best of my ability, and regardless of the situations I’m put in, I’ve got to capitalize on it.”
When the Lions hired Dan Campbell as their next head coach, Walker was arguably the most excited of the returning players. Throughout spring and fall camp, the bond between Campbell and Walker was impossible to overlook, as they joked with each other during downtimes, and established a relationship built on mutual respect.
“Honestly, I just get to be myself,” Walker said about the coaching atmosphere. “Let’s just say it like that. I get to walk around and be myself and I can’t ask for much else. As long as I get to be myself and get to be the jolly person that I am then, like I said, my play on the field will speak for itself.”
Campbell wasn’t alone in gaining Walker’s attention. Walker immediately latched himself to the hips of defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, and he worked his tail off to learn the nuances of the new scheme—a variation of the split-zone scheme he played in college.
With Walker’s role heavily shifting back to free safety, Walker was put back into a position that utilized his strengths and expectations were high that he would be a bounce-back candidate in 2021.
Actual role in 2021
15 games (15 starts): 108 tackles (3 for loss), 1 sack, 1 interception, 6 pass breakups
PFF grade: 65.1 (37th out of 64 safeties playing at least 50% of snaps)
Free safety: 70% of snaps
Walker was the Lions starting free safety and played in all but two games, where he was inactive due to COVID-19 protocols. While he finished 37th among safeties on PFF’s grading scale, during the first month and a half of the season he was dominant. After Week 5—arguably his best game of the season—Walker had graded out as PFF’s No. 2 safety (20 percent of defensive snaps minimum) overall, including being the third-best safety against the run and seventh-best safety against the pass.
“That’s the Tracy we know and have been waiting for him to come out of his shell,” Campbell said of Walker at his Week 6 Monday press conference. “He played confident, he played physical, and he communicated well. It was great to see because he played like a top-notch safety yesterday and he was a factor—you felt his presence.”
Over the next two weeks, the Lions faced off against the two Super Bowl teams (Bengals and Rams) and Walker’s play came back down to earth a bit. He still flashed game-changing potential, but over the next two months, there were also lulls in his performances where he struggled to produce.
By the end of the season, Walker looked back on track and played some terrific football. In the season finale against the Green Bay Packers, Walker finished the season on a high note, registering 14 tackles (a career-high), making the game-winning interception, and being recognized as the NFC Defensive Player of the Week—the first Lions’ player to win the award since Darius Slay did it in 2018.
Walker’s Lions-leading 108 tackles was a career high and the second time he broke the century mark in tackles (103 in 2019) during his four-year career.
Outlook for 2022
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
While Walker is comfortable testing the free agency market, he has also made it clear he would prefer to return to Detroit to continue building on the foundation they established in 2021.
“My main objective right now is to continue to grow with this coaching staff, continue to grow with this group of guys I’ve got surrounding me, and just continue to try to build a foundation,” Walker said about his potential future in Detroit. “One thing I’ve been saying all year is we’re trying to establish a foundation, and that’s something I want to be a part of. I just want to do the best and be the best player I can possibly be.”
Lions coaches would also like to get Walker back in the fold in 2022 and beyond. When our own Jeremy Reisman asked Glenn if it was a priority to re-sign Walker this offseason, he answered without hesitation: “Absolutely. We like good players, and if you’re a good player, we’re looking to sign you.”
Safety is a key role in the Lions scheme. Lions coaches have invested a lot of time into Walker and they believe he can be a leader of this franchise.
“He’s bought into everything that we’re trying to get done in this defense as far as a safety’s perspective and he’s grown,” Glenn continued. “He’s grown in that and he’s also become a leader as far as linebackers, as far as getting everybody together and watching some tape. That’s what we expect of our safeties.”
Tracy Walker breaks it down at the end... He has really established himself as a defensive leader this season. https://t.co/9j5hMgyewo— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) January 10, 2022
At the Senior Bowl, Pleasant echoed Glenn’s comments about the importance of the safety position and believes Walker has yet to hit his developmental ceiling, acknowledging that both he and Walker agree, he could have played better in 2021.
“Both him and I believe for as good as this year was, there is vast room for improvement,” Pleasant said. “And collectively, if we get a chance to work again in the future, you guys can see the same progression that maybe we’ve seen over the last year.”
Those lulls during the middle of the season, combined with the team's overall losing record, have taken some of the national spotlights off of Walker this offseason. The Athletic has nine safeties in their top-75 free-agent rankings ($upscription) and Walker was not among them, while PFF’s top-200 free agency rankings ($ubscription) projects Walker as the 20th best safety (169th overall) in this cycle.
Now, it’s worth keeping in mind this safety free agency class is loaded with talent—including players such as Marcus Williams, Jessie Bates III, Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Maye, Quandre Diggs, Jordan Whitehead, Terrell Edmunds, Justin Reid, and Anthony Harris—but it’s fair to wonder where he fits in amongst those players.
A deep free agency pool will soften the contracts at the position, but don’t expect Walker to skip out on a payday. While he likely won’t be among the safeties making $10 to $13 million a season, a contract that averages between $6 and $9 million seems reasonable.
Last month, POD polled Lions fans, asking if the Lions should re-sign Walker and the results were an overwhelming “yes”, to the tune of 93-percent of votes. Let’s see if things have changed:
Should the Lions re-sign Tracy Walker
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