D-line’s Walker still has time to salvage rough rookie year
DeMarcus Walker walked out of Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium less than one year earlier in a triumphant mood.
The Broncos rookie finished a decorated career at Florida State by helping the Seminoles beat Michigan 33-32 in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, 2016. Walker had a sack — his 16th of the season, a fitting final audition for the NFL draft.
Walker returned to that stadium Sunday in a far different space. His sterling career as a pass rusher for the Seminoles led the Broncos to draft him in the second round, with the 51st overall pick. But little has gone right in a rookie season during which he was shifted from defensive end to outside linebacker, became a weekly inactive upon the return of Shane Ray and recently moved back to defensive end because of injuries along the line.
His playing time has been sparse. He played Sunday for the first time since Oct. 22, finishing with one tackle in three defensive plays in Denver’s 35-9 loss to the Dolphins. He has three tackles this season and hasn’t played more than 10 snaps in any game. It’s a season that has tested Walker more than he imagined.
“I think there are a lot of things that he wasn’t expecting coming to the NFL,” said defensive coordinator Joe Woods. “Going to Florida State and being a mar- quee player there, when you come here, you’re back to ground zero. That was a little bit of a shock for him along with the speed of the game, the quality of the players that he was going against and things that we were asking him to do.”
With four games left as a rookie, Walker is eager to prove he’s learned from the struggles he’s encountered since seeing Denver snow for the first time in April. With end Derek Wolfe now on injured reserve because of a neck injury and the timeline for injured nose tackle Domata Peko’s return uncertain, Walker could have a larger role in the final four games.
“I was very happy to be back
out there and get the reps I had,” Walker, 23, said of playing against the Dolphins. “I just have to keep making plays and get the coaches to trust me.”
Broncos coach Vance Joseph left little doubt as to why Walker was sent to the bench when Ray returned from offseason wrist surgery Oct. 30. Fourth on the depth chart at outside linebacker behind Von Miller, Shaquil Barrett and Ray, he had to play special teams. Walker hadn’t proved himself up to the task, so the nod went to Kasim Edebali. But even when Edebali was cut by the Broncos last month, a move that seemed to open a door for Walker at outside linebacker, the team instead promoted Deiontrez Mount from the practice squad to play special teams.
“Until he learns how to play (special) teams,” Joseph said of Walker then, “he won’t progress as the fourth guy.”
But before he could continue his fight to become Denver’s fourth outside linebacker, injuries necessitated a move to defensive end. It’s where Walker began the offseason before being shifted to the outside. In a rookie season full of obstacles, Walker said shifting between positions is not one of them.
“To be honest, I’m a defensive lineman, but I can also play outside linebacker,” he said. “I was drafted to do both. I like going back and forth. I tell people that I’m both, an outside linebacker and a defensive lineman, because I can. I’ve been doing that since college and high school, playing inside and out. I’m a versatile player, so I’m used to it.”
But one of the challenges of making Walker a true “hybrid-type of player,” as Woods called him Thursday, is identifying the right way to build his body. Walker said weighing 270 to 275 pounds would be the ideal mark to allow him to be a pass rusher who could also hold his own along the defensive front. He weighs about 255, and concedes that maintaining his weight has been a challenge.
“You want to be lighter playing the outside linebacker position because of the things we’re asking you to do from a coverage standpoint,” Woods said. “But inside, you’ve got to be big enough to hold up. He’s more of a situational pass rusher right now, and we’ll have to see how we can play him in terms of playing outside linebacker — or is he just an interior lineman?”
Building blueprints for building his body and identifying his true role for 2018 can wait a few weeks. For now, Walker is determined to end a disappointing season on a triumphant note.
“I want to seize an opportunity,” he said. “I’m not going to go out without a fight.”