Injuries give Packers' Walker an opportunity at WR
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--Tyrone Walker speculated that the moment might have been too big what with it being his first play in a Green Bay Packers uniform and a bunch of screaming fans ready to embrace him just a few yards beyond the Lambeau Field south end zone.
But the moment wasn’t too big. No moment has been too big for the upstart Walker, a 5-10, 198-pound receiver who might be the biggest long shot to make a roster around here since DuJuan Harris went from the used car lot to the starting backfield.
The fact of the matter is Aaron Rodgers just missed him.
On third and goal at the 2, Walker lined up as the No. 4 receiver, put a move on safety Yeremiah Bell and broke to the sideline, running 2 yards deep in the end zone. Rodgers rolled a little to the right and threw incomplete to Jermichael Finley, ending Walker’s moment.
“I was open,” Walker said after the game. “He (Rodgers) even asked me, ‘You were in?’ Yeah, I was open. No. 1, he threw to Jermichael, but I was open. I was hungry for that one. My eyes got big.”
Rodgers should be used to Walker being open. He’s been open a lot during the first two weeks of training camp, and the times he hasn’t he’s made it a 50-50 proposition by fighting for every ball thrown his way.
In practice Monday, Walker was the No. 3 receiver behind James Jones and Jarrett Boykin, a reward for his five-catch, 41-yard performance in a 17-0 loss against the Arizona Cardinals Friday night. Walker caught all but one of the passes thrown to him in leading the team in receptions longest play of the game with a 22-yard catch and run.
“I couldn’t have dreamed it up that way,” he said of his first game.
Walker’s ascension is as close to a Halley’s Comet event as you’ll find.
He was recruited by just two mid-major colleges (after breaking Indiana’s high school record for receiving yards), was completely passed over in the NFL draft (despite setting four school receiving records at Illinois State) and had to try out with 26 other guys for a couple of remaining spots on the roster just to get a ticket to training camp.
Now he’s taking snaps at the No. 1 slot position?
“It just shows that somebody noticed me,” Walker said after practice Monday. “I took the reps and it surprised me. But I had to act like I knew it was coming all along. I just took it in stride.”
Coach Mike McCarthy said it is that point in camp when players who carry strong practice capital and double down on it in preseason games get the chance to move up the depth chart. And so Walker, who began building his portfolio during his rookie orientation camp tryout in May, is getting to show what he can do with the starters.
It helps that veterans Jordy Nelson (knee) and Randall Cobb (biceps) and seventh-round picks Charles Johnson (knee) and Kevin Dorsey (hamstring) are sidelined, but, hey, those things happen. Walker is the smallest guy on the receiving corps and no one can knock him out.
“He’s got some nastiness to him,” Jones said. “Ain’t going to let nobody push him around. He’s not 4.3 (in the 40-yard dash), but he’s fast enough to get behind you. He just plays with a lot of confidence. He’s been making a lot of plays.”
When he was coming out of high school, where his Indianapolis Carter Ritter team won the state Division 1A title his senior year, nobody paid attention. He remembers talking to a recruiter from Purdue and being told that size matters.
The only two offers he got were from Illinois State and Indiana State.
“My grades were fine,” Walker said. “I was just undersized. A guy from Purdue came in and said, ‘We like you, but you’re not just Big Ten size.’ That’s one of my biggest pieces of motivation. They question my size, like it has an effect on my play, but it doesn’t because I play big.”
That’s what he did at Illinois State, where he caught 250 passes for 3,565 yards and 32 touchdowns in four seasons. During those years, the Redbirds went 28-18. The Boilermakers went 22-32.
Walker did not have a particularly good pro day at Northwestern in the spring, running a 4.59-second 40-yard dash and benching 225 pounds 11 times. He did register a 39-inch vertical leap and a solid 6.99-second three-cone drill, but teams apparently didn’t think a 191-pound receiver (at that time) was capable of making it in the NFL.
Director of pro personnel Eliot Wolf was at the workout and when the draft was over and nobody had called to even offer him an undrafted free agent contract, Walker got a call from the Packers offering him a shot on a tryout basis.
So, with the 26 other tryout guys who crammed into tight quarters to dress and get prepared for their big shot, Walker came out and outperformed everybody, including most of the draft choices. He caught everything that was thrown to him and ran the offense as though he had been around it for months.
“It was pretty quick,” Walker said of how long it took him to master the playbook. “I just had to zero in at night. I wasn’t learning it during the day. It was at nighttime when I would actually learn the playbook. I think it’s instinct and knowing the concepts and schemes. That made it easy to learn.”
The one thing everyone notices when they watch Walker is the strength of his hands. He never catches the ball with his body and when given a shot to return punts he merely plucked the ball out of the air rather than letting it drop into his waiting arms.
Because he is small and can’t always body big defenders, he’s constantly working back to the quarterback, putting himself in a position where he can fight for the ball. When it gets near him, he doesn’t let it get close to his body.
“He has great hands, that’s what I notice,” cornerback Sam Shields said.
“He’s a great route runner. He’s still young, but I see a lot of talent in him. I see things that I think he can make this team.
“There’s some things he needs to keep working on. If he can get with Cobb and Jordy and those guys and (learn), he’ll really be a good receiver.”
Walker said the biggest adjustment for him is that he doesn’t get wide open as he did in college and so he has to be better in tight quarters than his competition. That’s where his strong hands and impressive vertical jump come in.
He can use both to fight for the ball.
“Somebody is always there trying to contest the ball,” Walker said. “That’s one of the biggest adjustments. I was open a lot in college; here somebody is either closing or there with you. You have to get your ball.”
Walker is fighting with Boykin, Jeremy Ross, Myles White and the two draft picks for the spots behind Jones, Nelson and Cobb. How far he goes will depend on how well he performs in the final three preseason games.
“I’m excited to see how he’s going to perform on Saturday again (vs. St. Louis),” Jones said. “One game doesn’t define you. It will be good for him to get out there and get some more reps.”
As far as Walker is concerned, the more the better. He’s got nothing to lose.