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Tracy Walker’s return says a lot about the Detroit Lions’ culture

Getting Walker to stay is a big deal.

NFL: DEC 05 Vikings at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions were pretty quiet on day one of the legal tampering period of free agency. Still, they made a big splash of a deal when they brought back safety Tracy Walker on a three-year $25 million dollar deal. This signing had me thinking about the past and it also had me thinking about a bright future.

A year ago, the the Lions were as deep into the abyss as they could get. They had fired their head coach and general manager, lost their starting quarterback of 12 years, their entire receiving corps and more. The Lions’ transformation from a 9-7 team that could be on the brink of major success to a franchise regularly picking in the top five in the draft. The idea that anything about this team would be exciting a year from then seemed impossible.

What a difference a year makes. The Lions became one of the more fun teams in the league to watch, and we saw them install a culture their locker room that had players fighting as hard as they could for success. The Lions have had no problem keeping their players on the roster. Evan Brown could’ve found a place where he would contend for a starting job. He chose to stay on a modest contract to back up Frank Ragnow. Josh Reynolds could’ve tried to parlay his late-season production into a big contract in a crazy wide receiver market. Instead, he wanted to stay in Detroit for what could turn out to be a one-year, $2.7 million contract.

The biggest impact of all the Lions re-signing is Tracy Walker, though. Walker coming back says a lot more than it seems. His return shows that the Lions’ culture in this moment is real, it works, and it’s worth sticking around for.

The NFL exploded with deals on on Monday. The Jaguars signed a bunch of players and arguably overpaid for all of them. Christian Kirk is now the ninth-highest paid wide receiver (by average salary per year) and he may have been the Cardinals’ third-best receiver before that. Zay Jones started nine games for the Raiders last year and got $30 million thrown at him by Jacksonville. It wasn't just the Jaguars. A lot of other teams agreed to spend a lot of money on Monday.

The point I’m trying to make here is that Tracy Walker could have gone anywhere and could have made a lot of money doing it. After all, Walker was one of the best free safeties in the league for much of the 2021 season and was one of the best safeties available in free agency. He could have left. Maybe in the past he would have. The Lions have a history of losing some of their top players to free agency. Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril are some of the the big names, that come to mind.

Heck, on Monday, former Lions draft picks Laken Tomlinson and Quandre Diggs both got PAID, and both left (or were forced out of) Detroit because of a serious culture clash. We all know Quinn was forced out of town by Matt Patricia. Here’s what Dave Birkett had to say about Tomlinson’s four-year stint in Detroit:

Tomlinson’s case was slightly different. He was beat down mentally by the heavy-handed approach of ex-Lions offensive line coach Ron Prince.

Bad. Culture.

Walker could have left, but he chose to stay. One of the reasons he chose to stay is because of this coaching staff and the culture that’s being built around him. Walker said as much after the season.

“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. “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.”

This is a big deal for this team. The Lions’ culture is working and the players are seeing that. Walker saw that and you have to believe that players outside of Detroit might see that, too. In one year Detroit went from a place that you needed to escape from to a place where you can come and be treated like a man, a pro athlete and a player who will be coached to play your best game. If we don’t see it this year, we’ll see it next. The Lions are making themselves a destination with the culture they’re building.