Green Bay Packers linebacker Quay Walker had an eventful rookie season with the team. There were some great moments and some that left coaches and teammates shaking their heads.
But the Packers coaching staff is looking for the former Georgia star to take on a bigger role on defense this season as he makes the anticipated second-year jump.
As a rookie, Walker was thrust into the starting lineup right away. He ended up starting 16 of 17 games and leading the team in tackles with 121. Walker even called the defensive signals for a few games when fellow ILB De’Vondre Campbell missed time with an injury.
Walker broke up seven passes and forced three fumbles. He also recorded 1.5 sacks and had five tackles for loss. His biggest play may have been the fumble recovery he made against the Eagles in Week 12 which he returned 63 yards to set up a touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Aaron Jones that tied the game at 20-20.
But along with the good plays were the rookie mistakes. Early in the season, Walker had trouble staying in his gap and often got blocked by opposing linemen far too easily. He struggled in run defense and was often out of position as he was learning the playbook and adjusting to life in the NFL.
He also suffered a pair of inexcusable ejections where the young man simply lost his cool. Against Buffalo, Walker was ejected for shoving a practice squad player on the Bills sideline. Then, in the season finale against the Lions, he was ejected for shoving a Lions trainer who was taking care of an injured player.
Walker has taken ownership of the two ejections and admitted he needs to control his temper better in the future. Doing so would certainly speed up his development in year two.
After the second ejection, Walker tweeted, “I want to apologize publicly about what happened Sunday night. I reacted off of my emotions again and take full responsibility of making another stupid decision. Since then, I’ve questioned myself on why did I do what I did when the trainer was doing his job!! I was wrong!! I understand I have to face everything that comes with the decision I’ve made and I’m definitely paying for it now. Also, to explain my frustration in the tunnel. I wasn’t upset about being kicked out, I just knew I messed up again and was wrong for what I did and couldn’t believe I did it again. To the Detroit lions and to the entire training staff including the person I did that to, I’m sorry.”
As a result, the coaching staff saw both the highlights and low points of Walker’s first season. “Up and down,” Packers linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti replied when asked about Walker’s rookie season at his press conference this week. “I think there was a consistent growth throughout. It wasn’t like he would learn something and then unlearn it. I don’t think that was the case, so that was very encouraging.”
Despite the occasional struggles, the coaching staff saw a lot of potential in Walker after his rookie season. “He did a lot of different things for us last year,” Olivadotti added. “The biggest thing is how all of his skills are going fit into this defense because every year, it’s a new team and picture every year. So how it’s going to fit into this defense, it does give you a versatile tool to play with, and he’s very willing and learns it, wants to know, so that’s very helpful.”
The Packers coaching staff is looking for Walker to assume a bigger role this year and will seek to use him in a variety of ways.
In addition to playing off ball linebacker, Walker may also use his outstanding speed to rush the passer. Last season, PFF said Walker rushed the passer 66 times in 17 games played. That number could very well go up in 2023 especially early in the season when Rashan Gary may not be available or may be on a limited play count as he returns from his season-ending knee injury of a year ago. With Gary out of the lineup or limited, defensive coordinator Joe Barry will look for other players to step up and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Walker certainly would be a candidate to fill that void whether it’s from his traditional off-ball linebacker spot or coming off the edge.
Pass rush coordinator Jason Rebrovich was succinct when asked by reporters about that possibility. “Yes,” he said.
The Packers are always looking for players on both sides of the ball who are versatile and can help the team in many areas. They believe Walker can become one of those players on defense who can help improve the run defense, drop back in coverage and occasionally rush the passer. Now it’s up to Walker to prove he can take that second-year leap and get the job done. If he can, the defense could take a step towards meeting the high expectations that go along with having eight former first-round picks on the roster.
Follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers
Click here for more great Packers coverage