It started the first week of training camp when Will Harris began playing in front of Tracy Walker. In the beginning, it seemed like it might be the Detroit Lions getting a look at a young player next to the veteran safety they traded for, Duron Harmon.
Days went by. All of training camp passed. Harris consistently took snaps with the No. 1 unit ahead of Walker, despite Walker being one of the bright spots on a 3-12-1 team last season, making 103 tackles and breaking up eight passes.
This also despite Walker consistently looking like one of Detroit’s best defensive players in training camp and continually being a versatile player who can move to a bunch of different spots. Then games started, and through the first two weeks of the season, the Lions have continued to play Harris as much or more than Walker.
“Every year is a little bit different from that standpoint. I think the DB room has changed completely from that aspect of it, and guys work during the course of the offseason to improve on certain things,” Patricia said. “It’s just about competition. But certainly without an offseason program and shorter training camp, we have a limited snapshot of what that competition looks like. We continually evaluate it as we go through the course of the season and things can change.
“For us, and I would say particularly the safety position, I generally like to play a lot of safeties and those guys will be out there in different roles in different capacities. I think from that standpoint, they’re all kind of starters based on whatever package we’re in that particular game or that particular week.”
What is clear with Walker are two things: The Lions are playing him less and they’ve significantly changed his role.
Harris has played 101 snaps. Walker played 93. Harris is playing less special teams this year – down from 56 percent to 36 percent – while Walker’s special teams usage is on the rise, from three percent last season to 36 percent this season.
Defensive coordinator Cory Undlin said, though, both Harris and Walker will be playing a lot going forward, no matter their role.
Last year Walker played fewer than 60 snaps in the three games in which he appeared last season – against New York in Week 8, against Dallas in Week 11 and against Chicago in Week 13. Walker had injured his knee against the Giants and when he returned against the Cowboys suffered another knee injury.
This season, Walker has yet to play more than 54 snaps in either of Detroit’s losses to Chicago or Green Bay.
“We’re all close and we all have specific skill sets,” Harris said. “We talk, game plan together, pretty much do everything together so it’s fun to be on the field with those guys when each of our numbers are called.”
How they’ve used Walker also has dramatically changed. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Walker has lined up in a traditional safety spot in just 11 of 89 snaps he’s played in the first two weeks of the season. Last season, he lined up as a traditional safety for at least 14 snaps in every game he played.
Instead, Detroit has moved Walker around to a bunch of different positions, perhaps trying to take advantage of his versatility. He’s played 34 snaps in a traditional outside linebacker area – something the Lions also used him at last year – 29 snaps in the slot and 11 where an outside corner would be.
Despite playing less and being moved around more, he’s continued to produce. He leads the Lions with three pass breakups – as many as the rest of the defense combined – and 11 tackles. He has one pressure, which is not a lot but still as many as the entirety of Detroit’s defensive line.
Going back to last December, Patricia has praised Walker's versatility and in a Dec. 11 press conference compared what he was doing last season to what ex-Lions safety Tavon Wilson was doing for the club. Now, it looks more and more like the Lions are using Walker in a similar role to how Wilson was used a season ago, where he alternated between a few different spots.
“Will and Tracy are both really good players and we’re trying to utilize them both in different packages,” Undlin said. “I’m not going to get into the specifics of each package, but we like both of them. I like both of them. They are trusted with their teammates.
“They are 0-2, just like everybody else is, so they have not played the best and I have to coach those guys better and put them in better spots. Get them to believe in themselves just like everybody else but I don’t question either one of them.”