Just eight defensive plays into Week 3, Detroit Lions starting safety and captain Tracy Walker tore his Achilles, effectively ending his season.
“Yeah, look losing Tracy hurts,” coach Dan Campbell said on Monday. “That’s a significant loss because multiple reasons, I mean Tracy’s been—since I walked in the door last year he’s been all in. And he’s one of our team captains this year. Nobody’s put in more work than he has since the spring. And he’s one of the smartest players we have on defense, that’s huge and he’s productive. And so, you’re losing a big cog in the piece that helps you over there.”
When Walker exited the game, the Lions turned to JuJu Hughes to replace him. Hughes played on the remaining 88 percent of defensive snaps and earned a respectable 64.6 overall grade from PFF.
While Hughes seems like a natural replacement, at least in the short term, the Lions are keeping their options open.
“Listen, we’re going to look at everything and see what gives us the best chance to win, personnel-wise, scheme-wise, everything,” Campbell concluded.
So with all options on the table, let’s take a look at five players the Lions could consider and two they likely won’t.
JuJu Hughes, Lions active roster
Let’s start with the obvious choice and what Campbell thought about his performance filling in.
“I thought JuJu was solid,” Campbell said. “He was solid, he can be better. But, man, not getting those reps and stepping in and doing some of the things he did, that was good. And that’s kind of what we know about JuJu, he’ll go in there and he’ll be able to function and give you what he’s got.”
Hughes seems like the most reliable choice, right now. But what is his ceiling? I fully expect Hughes to be the early favorite for the role, but will he be able to hold the job all season, or is he only considered a placeholder for one of the two top-100 picks sitting right behind him on the depth chart?
Kerby Joseph, Lions active roster
Joseph is the most recent of those top-100 picks, and just three games into his rookie season, he has yet to play a defensive snap. The lack of playing time is not overly surprising, as he only has one year of starting experience under his belt (at Illinois), and his projection to the field was expected to take time.
That being said, Joseph is a ball-hawking safety with range to fly all over the field and arguably has the highest ceiling of any of the safety reserves on the current roster. His ability to play single-high gives him a unique skill set and is a natural complement to the Lions' other starting safety, DeShon Elliott.
While the Lions' plan was to take things slow with Joseph and allow him to acclimate to the NFL, the Walker injury may speed up that developmental timeline.
Ifeatu Melifonwu, Lions active roster
Picked in the third round of the 2020 draft, Melifonwu converted from corner to safety this offseason, but a series of injuries kept him off the field during OTAs and training camp and has slowed his adjustment period.
Now healthy—he has been practicing for three weeks, including in full all of last week—Melifonwu is set to return to action and Campbell noted that he will be in the mix for the starting role.
“He’s about ready,” Campbell said of Melifonwu. “He’s about ready, so he’ll be somebody that we consider this week as well.”
At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, Melifonwu has all the athleticism you could want in a defensive back. Yet, it’s still not entirely clear how well Melifonwu will transition to safety—largely because the media is restricted at practices this time of the season—but his skill set fits. One of Melifonwu’s best traits is his ability to play off-man coverage, and when allowed to set up and keep things in front of him, he has the potential to be productive.
The big unknown is: how far along is he in his transition to the position.
Tony Jefferson, Giants practice squad
One of the most popular questions I got on social media following the Walker news was about the possibility of adding Jefferson.
A seven-year starter in the league with the Cardinals and Ravens, Jefferson has had a tough road of late. After tearing his ACL in 2019, Jefferson missed all of 2020 as a free agent while rehabbing and teams were unwilling to take a chance on him during the COVID pandemic. In 2021, Jefferson split the season between the Ravens and 49ers, then joined the Giants in 2022 but was released at cut downs and joined their practice squad. Jefferson was elevated from the practice squad in Weeks 1 and 2 this season but spent most of his time as a hybrid safety/linebacker.
Stylistically, the fit with the Lions scheme doesn’t make much sense at the starting level, but there could be value in the Lions signing him as a situational contributor/depth piece.
One of the main reasons the Lions may consider adding Jefferson is familiarity. Dating back to his time as a starter in Baltimore, during the 2018 and 2019 seasons, he shared a backfield with DeShon Elliott and worked with current Lions safeties coach Brian Duker. Those relationships would help with the acclimation process and could help speed up his ability to absorb the playbook.
Jefferson’s next biggest asset is his leadership, something the Lions will be light on with Walker no longer on the field. Beyond that, it’s difficult to project where he would fit with any certainty.
Anthony Harris, Broncos practice squad
In 2019, Harris was one of the best ball-hawking safeties (seven interceptions) in the NFL, and the Vikings used the franchise tag on him in 2020. He failed to live up to the big-money contract and he left for the Eagles in 2021—following defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon—signing a one-year deal and making half as much as the year prior. After another average, yet unspectacular season, Harris re-signed with the Eagles on another one-year contract that saw his money cut in half. Harris was released by the Eagles at cutdowns and re-signed to their practice squad, but after not seeing a path to the active roster, he asked for his release and joined the Broncos practice squad.
Harris’ ball-hawking days are behind him, but the soon-to-be 31-year-old is still a solid tackler with single-high range. I highly doubt Harris would come in and compete to start, but like Jefferson, he could be a nice veteran presence that contributes situationally and acts as depth.
Probably not an option: Will Harris
Harris entered the league as a safety and spent the majority of his career at the position, even starting last season before switching to corner in the second half of the year. So naturally, Harris would be considered for the open job, right?
“We’ll talk about that,” Campbell said. “I don’t know if I see that move right now. We kind of like Will right where he’s at. If anything he could get some more corner work. I don’t want to totally say he’s not getting the safety, but we think there’s a real good spot where he’s at right now that maximizes him and us, what he’s able to do for us.”
Sure sounds like he is staying put.
Probably not an option: C.J. Moore
Another name that was thrown in my social media mentions on Monday was Moore, who was the Lions' fourth option at safety last season and even started a game after Harris transitioned to corner.
Moore exited the spring in a nice position on the roster—mainly due to his special teams contributions—but an injury delayed his participation in training camp, and he wasn’t back long before re-injuring himself. Eventually, Moore landed on injured reserve and was released with an injury settlement.
So why is Moore not a likely option? Well, it comes down to how injury settlements work.
Once a player and team agree upon how long a player on injured reserve will likely be injured, a workman’s compensation agreement is made, and the player is paid for the projected time missed. The caveat here is, while the player technically becomes a free agent upon release, they are not allowed to sign with a team during the “projected missed time” that they are already being paid for. Once that timeframe has elapsed, they are free to sign with any of the other 31 teams immediately. If they wish to re-sign with the team they reached an injury settlement with, they must wait an additional three weeks before they can sign a contract—this clause is used to prevent teams from taking advantage of the settlement rules.
So, even if Moore’s injury settlement with the Lions was for a single week, he would not be eligible to re-sign with them until after Week 4.
Unfortunately, we have no idea how long the agreement was arranged for, and thus, have no idea when Moore could actually return to Detroit if he desired. The only thing we do know is that it won’t be this week.