Niyo: Lions’ Tracy Walker nearing full return, raring to roll with new-look secondary

Detroit News

Allen Park — Tracy Walker insists he has no complaints these days.

But there is one thing that’s bothering one of the Lions’ returning captains on defense.

Less than eight months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn Achilles that wiped out almost all of his 2022 season, the 28-year-old safety feels like he’s fully back from the injury, physically and mentally. Yet he’s still a limited participant as the Lions are back on the field for OTAs, taking part in individual drills and walkthroughs with his teammates, but forced to sit out the 11-on-11 scrimmage work. All of which leaves him more than a bit frustrated.

“That’s an understatement,” Walker said following Thursday’s workout at the Lions’ practice facility. “It’s so (expletive) — excuse my language — but it’s so difficult for me. Because I’ll be on the sideline, and I’m just over there running and doing my conditioning and I’m like, ‘Man, I can go out here and run and do all my coverages and stuff.’”

He can, but he won’t. Not until late July, anyway, after he’s fully cleared by his surgeon and the Lions’ medical team prior to the start of training camp.

“Unfortunately, I have to be patient,” Walker added. “I have everybody around me (saying), ‘Slow down. Don’t go out there. We need you.’ So it’s cool to know that I’m wanted and I’m needed on this team. But at the same time, I want to go out there and perform and do what I do best. So it sucks.”

It’s a “bittersweet feeling,” he says, knowing that he has come this far, this fast, racing through a remarkable recovery from a career-threatening injury — just as he’d promised he would last fall — only to be held back by a yellow caution flag.

Biding time

“Honestly, it’s just my approach: I’m a man of my word,” said Walker, the Lions’ leading tackler in 2021. “I said I was gonna come back and I was gonna be able to participate in OTAs, which I’m doing. And if it was up to me, I would be out here running around right now. But it’s not up to me. … It’s just not my time yet.”

But all that time away from doing what he loves best only reinforced some core beliefs for Walker, whose wife, Bella, had given birth to their second son only days before he went down with a ruptured Achilles early in a Week 3 loss at Minnesota.

“Honestly, I missed it, man,” Walker said. “It’s hard to explain. It was cool that I got time to spend at home with my family, but at the end of the day, I missed ball, you know? I missed coming out here and being around my teammates and being the leader that I am.”

Yet if you ask him what he missed most while missing all that ball last season, the answer might not be what you’d expect. It wasn’t that second-half turnaround as the Lions forced their way into the playoff chase and ultimately pushed the Green Bay Packers out of the postseason with a Week 18 win at Lambeau Field.

“To be completely honest with you, I feel like I was needed when we were going through the losing slump,” he said of the five-game skid that started with that late-September gut punch in Minnesota. “I feel like that’s when I wanted to be out here most. Not because we were winning, but because I feel like my team needed me most.”

Walker’s absence did open the door for rookie Kerby Joseph to step in as a starter the rest of the way, and his surprising play — including four interceptions, three of them against Aaron Rodgers — was just one of many bright spots for an improved defense by season’s end.

“That’s my little brother, from the time he walked in to now,” said Walker, who figures to be starting alongside Joseph at safety when the season kicks off in September at Kansas City.

Still, even with the second-half improvements on defense, the final numbers weren’t flattering. The Lions finished 30th in passing yards allowed, 31st in yards per attempt and only two teams allowed more completions of 20-plus yards than Detroit’s 60 on the year.

Revamped room

No surprise, then, that general manager Brad Holmes made it an offseason priority to upgrade the defensive backfield, signing cornerbacks Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley initially and then making another big splash with a one-year deal for C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who led the NFL with six interceptions for the NFC champs in Philadelphia last season and will play both nickel corner and some safety here in Detroit. The Lions also used a second-round pick on another defensive back in Alabama’s Brian Branch.

“Obviously, we had one of the worst secondaries in the league last year,” Walker said. “So that’s something that we gotta change, and I’m just happy that we made progress to make (that change) happen. … I’m excited for what we’re gonna do this year. Like I said, we’re gonna make a lot of noise this year.”

Based on Thursday’s OTA, they’re already doing that. A secondary that certainly wasn’t shy before now has Walker back along with the newly signed Gardner-Johnson, a vet whose boisterous confidence was once described as a “superpower” by a coach in New Orleans.

“He’s definitely a character,” Walker said, smiling. “I love it. Me and him have a lot of similarities. We love talking our trash. So there’s gonna be a lot of trash-talking this year. Stay tuned for that.”

But be aware, too: Walker has no plans to give up his alpha status in the secondary. All that added experience should do wonders for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn as he tries to scheme things up this fall, sure.

“At the same time, I’m still the leader,” said Walker, a core player who re-upped with the Lions on a three-year, $25 million contract prior to last season. “I feel like that’s my room. So that’s how I look at it. You know, they’re gonna come in and obviously they’re leaders as well. We’re all leaders in our own way.”

He’s the only one who has been through the worst of times here, though, having survived his first three NFL seasons under Matt Patricia, and all the misery that came with that. And much like we saw from the likes of Taylor Decker on the offensive side of the ball late last season, that carries some added weight.

“He’s been through the losing program and now he’s trying to flip it over,” third-year cornerback Jerry Jacobs said. “He won’t take anything for granted. … We need that type of guy.”

Soon enough, they’ll have all of him.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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