Had it been up to Tracy Walker, he would have been flying around the field and "talking trash to the offense" in the Lions' third practice of OTA's. By the end of the afternoon, which looked like another win for the Lions' defense, half of Walker's teammates would have been done with him. Jared Goff might have been especially fed up. "JG would hate me right now," Walker grinned.
But as Walker makes his way back quickly from the torn Achilles he suffered last September, it's up to the doctors. And right now, the doctors say the best thing for Walker is to take it slow, difficult orders to follow for a safety who only knows one speed.
"That's an understatement. It's so f**king -- excuse my language," Walker said Thursday, catching himself with a laugh. "It’s so difficult for me, because I’ll be on the sideline just running and doing my conditioning and I'm like, ‘Man, I can go out here and run and do all my coverages and stuff.’ But that's the patient part. And unfortunately, I have to be patient."
Fortunately, the wait is almost over. Walker said he'll be "full-go" by the start of training camp, an impressive recovery from one of the most brutal injuries in sports. Eight months after he crumpled to the turf in Minnesota, Walker made good on his word to be back on the field, in some capacity, for OTA's in Allen Park: "I stood on what I said."
The injury was excruciating for Walker. Watching his teammates lose without him was worse. The Lions were on their way to a 2-1 start before Walker was carted off the field and the defense collapsed in a Week 3 loss to the Vikings. Five weeks later, the Lions were 1-6 and their secondary was getting torn to shreds.
"It was rough," Walker said. "I hated watching that on TV."
He liked what he saw the next week when rookie safety Kerby Joseph picked off Aaron Rodgers' twice to propel the Lions to a badly-needed win. It was the start of a second-half surge for the defense, which fueled Detroit's 8-2 run down the stretch. Still, by the end of the season, the Lions had allowed the most yards in the NFL, including the third most passing yards, second most yards per pass and most yards per completion.
Even from afar, Walker took that personally. He had committed to the Lions last offseason by signing a three-year, $25 million deal, and now he felt like he was letting them down. He didn't mince words Thursday when he said, "Obviously, we had one of the worst secondaries in the league last year. So that's something we gotta change."
On paper, it's already happened. GM Brad Holmes overhauled the backend of the Lions' defense this offseason, adding three impact players in free agency in Cam Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley and a fourth in the draft in Brian Branch. The return of Walker makes it five. And don't forget about Joseph, who was thrown into the fire last season after Walker's injury and sparked the whole defense. Suddenly, there aren't enough jobs to go around in the Lions' secondary.
"I just look at it as I got more ballers around me," said Walker.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, a former corner himself, has to be licking his chops. Dan Campbell might as well have been Thursday when he said of Sutton, Gardner-Johnson and Moseley, "They've got some skins on the wall." Between those three, the Lions have added 115 games of starting experience to their secondary. Gardner-Johnson, who will play both safety and nickel for Detroit, was tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions last season despite playing in just 12 games.
"The versatility they bring, we’re going to be able to do a lot more things on that backend," said Campbell. "I love what we’re, intellectually, on the field, going to be able to accomplish. ... I feel really good about that group and we’re not even in training camp yet, so that’s big. I can’t wait until we get pads on."
Neither can Walker. He was raring to go Thursday, while everyone around him was saying, "‘Slow down. We need you." Even with all those upgrades, Walker remains one of the most important pieces of Detroit's defense. He's fast and fearless and infectiously energetic. He commands the field while shrinking it, a hunter at his best. Now he has ballhawks next to him. And the Lions have a chance to be the team Walker envisioned when he chose Detroit for three more years.
"We're gonna make a lot of noise this year," he said.
At his post-signing press conference last spring, Walker said one of his goals moving forward was to come up with more picks. It bothered him that he was stuck on three through four seasons, which is where he stands today. Joseph had four in his first season alone. Surely, Walker is trying to catch his younger teammate this season.
"Honestly, I don't think about that. I'm trying to catch a Super Bowl," he said. "If I can catch that, that's all I care about. The stats don’t matter to me."
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