It’s been an unimaginably heavy year for Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker.
In February, his cousin, Ahmaud Arbery, was shot and killed in what’s being prosecuted as a racially motivated crime in Georgia. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, Walker and his wife Bella welcomed their first child into the world, a son, earlier this month. Add that to a global pandemic and football, well, it kind of feels secondary in importance.
“I feel like it was a year of learning for me — a lot of learning,” Walker said. “I definitely got a lot wiser, and there’s a lot of new things that I just, you know, wasn’t used to, and I had to adjust. Like I said, this year was a huge learning experience for me, off the field and on the field. And so now, 2021 approaching, I’m ready to process this year and take off the right way.”
As you might imagine, things didn’t go as expected at work. Viewed as a rising star after last season, the Lions altered Walker’s role to make room for veteran Duron Harmon. The transition proved rockier than anyone might have expected, leading to an early-season reduction in playing time and a failure to recapture his 2019 form.
Reflecting on it now, Walker is honest, admitting he feels more comfortable in the free safety role he was playing previously, while also acknowledging he fell well short of his own and the team’s expectations with the way he was utilized this year.
“I still need to get better at the new role that I have,” Walker said. “I feel like regardless of the role, I got to be great at it, you know? And I feel like when the coaches saw something that I could do, I feel like I could do the job, I just didn’t get the job done as good as I should have this year. So I feel like at the end of the day, I have to be better than that. It all boils down to me being a better football player and me just, like I said, adapting.”
Walker remains under contract for next season while Harmon is set to be a free agent. It stands to reason the franchise’s next coach and general manager will be able to put Walker back into a position where he can succeed.
Regardless, he vows to bounce back in 2021.
“I put myself at fault for all the mistakes I’ve made, and I put myself at fault for all the things that happened this year,” Walker said. “I’m going to correct them. I will be better. I can guarantee that. That’s just how I roll.
“Life is 10 percent what happens to you, 90 percent how you respond,” he continued. “You’re going to have the ups and downs. At the end of the day, it’s how you overcome them. That’s what makes you, you. If you didn’t have struggles, if you didn’t have those problems in your life, then you wouldn’t have gotten this far. You wouldn’t have grown. And that’s what this has allowed me to do — I’ve grown this year.”
No rebuild for Peterson
Given the franchise’s track record, you can argue Adrian Peterson was overly optimistic, but this wasn’t the season he expected when he signed with the Detroit Lions.
The future Hall of Fame running back had high-level aspirations, personally and for the team, when he joined the Lions days ahead of the start of the regular season.
“Winning this division, getting into the playoffs and chasing a championship,” Peterson said when asked to explain.
Instead, the Lions missed the postseason, fired their coach and general manager in November and will finish with five or six wins.
Individually, Peterson had previously talked about hoping to catch Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing list. But after opening the year as a starter, he’s settled into a backup role behind rookie D’Andre Swift and will likely finish the year with fewer than 600 yards rushing, leaving him well behind Sanders.
Still, despite those disappointments, Peterson wouldn’t mind returning to the Lions next season. That optimism he had when he signed with the franchise remains. He still believes in the roster’s talent and ability to make some noise in 2021 with the right adjustments.
Of course, it will be up to the next general manager whether or not to extend an offer to the veteran, but if the next decision-maker is planning on tearing things down before building them back up, Peterson is far less interested in coming back.
“Yeah, that’s not something that’s appealing to me, a situation where you’re told that you’re rebuilding,” he said. “That would be letting a lot of guys go and bringing in new guys. Yeah, I’m past the rebuilding stage. That wouldn’t be the ideal situation.”
Entering Sunday’s game, the 35-year-old Peterson has 14,757 career rushing yards. Only Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Frank Gore and Sanders have more. Assuming Peterson stays healthy, he should catch Sanders some time next season. He trails the Lions legend by just 512 yards.
Big plans for Cephus
As it currently stands, Quintez Cephus and Geronimo Allison are the only wide receivers under contract with the Lions next season after the latter opted out of the 2020 campaign.
While the room is trending toward a remodeling with Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, Danny Amendola and Jamal Agnew set to be free agents, receivers coach Robert Prince sees big things in Cephus’ future.
“He’s part of the new class, as far as no OTAs and not getting a chance to do that,” Prince said. “So a lot of our meetings started off virtual and for us to start working on techniques, it really didn’t start until training camp. There’s been growth every day. One thing about that kid is that he wants to get better. He comes in with a great attitude and not only is he trying to learn from me, he’s trying to learn from veteran guys. They’ve done a great job with him and I think his future will be bright.”
In 12 games this season, Cephus has hauled in 18 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown. He’s had at least one catch eight consecutive weeks, overlapping with Kenny Golladay’s absence from the lineup due to a hip injury.
The Lions were able to snag Cephus in the fifth round of the past draft, in large part due to how poorly he tested at the scouting combine. There he ran a less-than-desirable 4.73-second 40-yard dash.
Prince never had a problem with that time. In fact, he was grateful for it because he knew it gave him a better chance to coach Cephus. Plus, the coach is far more comfortable with what he’s seen on tape than on a stopwatch.
“It’s funny because at the combine when that time posted I was kinda like, ‘Yes! He’s going to drop and we’re going to be able to get him,'” Prince said. “You gotta look at the tape. Whatever his 40 was when he ran it, you watch the tape and he’s going by DBs on tape. He’s running go routes on guys and getting open. I don’t know what Jerry Rice’s official time was in the 40, but it wasn’t that fast. But you watch the tape and he was always a step faster than everybody else. That’s the same thing with Quintez. He doesn’t have blatant, all-out speed, but he’s fast enough to get by a guy.”