Tracy Walker was good as a rookie. So good, in fact, the Detroit Lions had to find ways to get him on the field in sub packages as a third safety. Walker played 27.1 percent of the defensive snaps for the Lions last season, but by the end of the year, that figure was closer to 50 percent over the last month.
"Tracy last year was critically important in a lot of the packages that we played," Lions head coach Matt Patricia said. "I thought he did a good job of kind of continuing to grow throughout the entire season and improving his play and showing consistency with that."
Heading into his second season, Walker's improved his communication and overall understanding of the defense. He's moved around within the defense and has been asked to do things Detroit's defensive coaches didn't want to ask of him as a rookie last year, even though they were things he was showing them he could do in practice late last season.
Walker will make his first official start at safety Sunday in Arizona, taking the place of Glover Quin next to Quandre Diggs. He's been good playing there throughout camp, and is ready to take on a much bigger role in the Lions' defense in 2019.
"I mean it's definitely a blessing," Walker said of being a starter. "I'm just honored to be able to play alongside a great group of guys. We're just going out there with the mindset to just go out there and compete and give it our all.
"With me, honestly, wherever I'm needed, I'm going to just play that role. It's a blessing."
For Walker, the kid gloves are off, and the next step in his progression begins Sunday.
"He brings a lot," Diggs said of Walker. "He's a freakish athlete. You guys see his arms and see how long he is. You see he can run and things like that. It's all about putting it together for him. Sunday will be a big test for him. First start. See how he reacts. I'm ready to line up next to him."
The Cardinals are expected to run an up-tempo offense that won't huddle much.
Facing an offense like that can be taxing on a defense, especially the guys up front. That stress might be even greater on Detroit's defensive linemen Sunday given that a lot of them didn't get a full month of work in training camp due to injury.
"That's something we're going to see how that goes and hopefully they can handle it," Patricia said Friday. "Part of the offense that we're going to face that they will stay on the field, they will go up tempo and they will try to wear those guys out and we have to do everything possible to keep those guys fresh so they can play 60 minutes."
Game No. 1 is always a barometer of how conditioned those guys upfront are, especially not having played much in the preseason.
The thing the Lions have going for them is they have great depth there, and should be able to rotate players in and out to keep them somewhat fresh.
Cornerback Darius Slay, 28, will inevitable find himself across from wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, 36, at some point Sunday. Slay and Fitzgerald have faced each other plenty of times over the years. Whenever Slay talks about the matchup, he does so with a ton of respect for Fitzgerald's game and the type of man he is.
It's pretty amazing to see a player like Fitzgerald still playing the receiver position at a high level into his upper 30's. His big frame, strong hands and 16 years of crafty experience allow him to continue to do it. He led the Cardinals in receiving the past four seasons, finishing last season with 69 grabs for 734 yards and six touchdowns. He has more than 1,300 career receptions.
"He's someone that just comes every single week to go out and compete and win and there's something about guys like Larry Fitzgerald where I think everyone in the stadium know you have to stop him and he knows it and everyone knows he's going to get the ball and somehow he still makes plays," Patricia said. "I think that's an amazing thing about a guy like that. He's a great player and a better person."
Sunday will be Fitzgerald's 235th game, breaking the Arizona franchise record held by kicker Jim Baker. Even after that many games, Fitzgerald said he still gets nervous for Sundays.
"This is going to be my 230-something game, and I'm still as nervous as I've been for the last 230 games," Fitzgerald told the Cardinals' team website. "I still get the butterflies. It means something to me.
"That's nice to be able to feel that feeling, that it's important and that it matters how I go out there and perform, how I lead, and how I help my teammates create opportunities for themselves. All of that is important to me."
The Lions leave for Arizona later today, which isn't uncommon when east coach teams travel west and vice versa.
They did the same thing before their Week 14 matchup with the Cardinals in Arizona last season. Detroit won that contest, 17-3.
"Same thing we did last year," Patricia said. "Going out to Arizona was kind of – we liked our approach to it, to get out there, and get settled in. We have a little bit of time this week, as it being the first game of the season. I just thought it was a good approach last year and we're going to stay with that."