This free agency period, many Detroit Lions fans were hoping the team would make a splash or two. At the top of their wish list was a player like former New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams, who seemingly would’ve been a perfect match of fit and need, given Detroit’s roster and his history with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
However, the Lions spent most of March committed to re-signing their players. The idea, according to Lions general manager Brad Holmes, was that developing from within with players you know and trust can be just as splashy—and sometimes more logical—than signing another team’s free agent.
“When I hear that people wanted us to get more external help, the grass is not always greener, and (internally) you kind of know who the culture fits are, and who aren’t,” Holmes said this week at the owners meetings.
One of the players who Holmes was certainly talking about was safety Tracy Walker. The Lions re-signed Walker to a three-year deal this offseason, ensuring the former third-round pick will be around for the next few years.
Let’s break down the decision and hand out a grade.
Tracy Walker has been on the verge of a breakout ever since an impressive rookie season to start his NFL career. The 27-year-old safety shows flashes of elite potential—sometimes for a string of several games—but has yet to put it all together for a full season.
Tracy Walker played a hell of a game in Minnesota. Team-high 9 tackles, 1 TFL, plus batted a pass into the air that was intercepted. Was Detroit's best player on Sunday per PFF.— kyle meinke (@kmeinke) October 11, 2021
Now the No. 2 safety in the entire NFL.
While Walker would end up with a somewhat average 65.1 PFF grade, his game didn’t noticeably drop off that much. Interestingly, he was not targeted very often in coverage throughout 2021. On just 28 targets, Walker allowed 18 catches, broke up four passes and grabbed one interception.
If there has been one consistent criticism for Walker’s game, it’s his lack of turnovers created. He has just three interceptions in his career and a single forced fumble. Walker, however, doesn’t think this is a weakness to his game.
“Let’s just say that turnover production is not always giving the (right) insight. If you turn on the film, you see me making plays,” Walker said last month. “But sometimes it just might not go my way for that turnover to count. It is what it is. I don’t look at it like that. I’m just going to continue to grow and continue to improve. I know I can make turnovers.”
Overall, Walker has shown to be an above average safety who has shown potential to be much better. All his game lacks is the consistency necessary to be considered more than that.
Walker is an ideal fit with what the Lions want to do with the safety position. He is fearless coming down into the box, laying the kind of hits we grew accustomed to seeing with Quandre Diggs. He’s also got elite athletic traits that allow him to cover a lot of field and his football instincts are definitely above average.
Perhaps most importantly, Walker is an ideal culture fit. You see him put in extra work at practice, and he’s starting to step into a leadership role in the Lions’ secondary. Walker said that his leadership was a big reason the Lions wanted him back.
“They love what I bring,” Walker said. “That’s just the type of player I am, and the person I am. Like I said, I’m not afraid to be myself at any point, at any time. I’m all about positive vibes, and I’m a hard worker. When I’m here, they know what they’re getting. All day every day, we’re grinding, and I’m trying to help everybody get better. So that’s why they wanted me back, and I’m glad to be back.”
Walker’s three-year, $25 million contract includes nearly $17 million guaranteed in the first two years of his deal. While his cap hit for 2022 ($3.36 million) is very team friendly, that jumps to $11.3 million next year. Per Spotrac, that gives Walker the 11th highest cap hit among all safeties in 2023. That’s a pretty hefty price to pay for a player who still hasn’t reached his potential. With all that guaranteed money, Walker is a pretty solid lock to be on the roster through that 2023 season.
He carries a similarly-high $10.3 million cap hit in 2024, but most of the guaranteed money is already gone by then. Detroit could recoup $8 million of that if they decide to part ways.
In other words, if he doesn’t pan out, it’s a two-year, $17 million deal. If he does pan out, three years and $25 million is a more-than-fair deal.
Giving Walker all of that guaranteed money is certainly a risk, but it’s a calculated risk. Rather than spending that money on a free agent they know less about, the Lions are betting on themselves and their coaching staff. They’ve seen Walker for a full year. They saw him grow and respond to their coaching staff, and they clearly believe they can mold him into a borderline top-10 safety in this league—because that’s what they plan on spending on him over the first couple years of his deal.
Personally, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This coaching staff—especially in the secondary—seems to have gotten just about everything they could out of some of their young players last year, and Walker should be entering the prime of his career right now.
While there is definitely a risk that Walker may still not reach his full potential four years into his career, it’s truly just a two-year roll of the dice. This isn’t a contract that will set the Lions back for years to come. In other words, this is mindful spending. Grade: B+
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