From barely playing as a rookie in 2018, to topping 100 tackles twice in a three-season span and being a team captain, to a remarkable recovery from a torn Achilles, it's been a pretty wild run for Detroit Lions safety Tracy Walker over his six seasons.
And that leaves aside the team's turnaround, which led to him being part of the "old guard" head coach Dan Campbell dedicated this year's division title too.
Walker was pushed down the depth chart by the addition of C.J. Gardner-Johnson last March, and he barely played any defensive snaps in the first two games this season. But Gardner-Johnson's torn pectoral in Week 2 put Walker back into the starting lineup, and he played at least 69 percent of the defensive snaps in all but one of the next 10 games.
But amid some struggles, Walker was benched in favor of Ifeatu Melifonwu for the Week 14 game against the Chicago Bears. A great three-week run for Melifonwu has included winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week for Week 16, so he's not giving up a big role anytime soon. And Gardner-Johnson is set to return soon, now likely in Week 18 against the Minnesota Vikings.
Detroit Lions trade rumors: Tracy Walker gone in the offseason?
Walker has played 40 special teams snaps and four defensive snaps over the last three games. When Gardner-Johnson is activated, he'll be fifth on the depth chart at safety.
Via John Maakaron of SI.com, special teams coach Dave Fipp acknowledged the struggle being called upon to play special teams can be for someone like Walker (43 career starts), while also pointing to how he has embraced the new role.
"I think Tracy's done a good job of that, I really respect and admire it. I know it's what he's supposed to do, but it's not easy. He does it with a smile on his face, he's into it, he's trying, he's trying to get better and I definitely appreciate and respect that. I don't think it's easy for him. I think playing on special teams is difficult.... He hasn't done much of it throughout his career, but I definitely admire and respect what he's done for us."
It's not surprising that Walker is keeping his head down and working on his special teams' craft, knowing no player is ever that far away from being called on to do more. But having a diminished role also has to hurt him a little bit, and moving forward it's hard to see how he fits into the Lions' future.
Coming off his rebound season in 2021, the Lions rewarded Walker with a three-year, $25 million deal (just shy of $17 million guaranteed). So next year is the final year of his contract, with a current cap number a little north of $12.8 million. A contract restructure last offseason tacked 2025 on as a void year.
According to Over The Cap, cutting Walker (pre-June 1), would clear $5.5 million in cap space and leave a $7.32 million dead money hit. A post-June 1 designation would clear $8 million in cap space with a $4.82 million dead money hit.
A trade, before or after June 1, would leave have the same respective financial implications as cutting Walker. A contract restructure could alter that, and better pave the way to trade him.
There have been no indications Walker has dealt with any lingering effects from his Achilles' tear, but being further removed from it can only be a good thing overall. And before the injury early last season, you could've made a case for him as the Lions' best defensive player.
Walker should have some trade value this offseason, and the Lions won't want to carry someone who will likely be a backup safety/special teamer with a $12.8 million cap hit in 2024. Maybe he takes a pay cut to stay, but it feels more likely the Lions will try to find a suitable trade and move him to a team he can start for next year.