While a lot of players who make it to the final cut-down day of training camp often hang around, hoping for another opportunity with an NFL team, Derel Walker hightailed it back to Canada as soon as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him.
Walker, who won the CFL’s most outstanding rookie award in 2015 and set club and league records during his first go-round with the Eskimos, has already been down that road before and didn’t want to waste any more time.
“Just happy to be playing, man,” he said about wearing a Green-and-Gold uniform again. “I’m always going to continue to chase my dream of playing football. Continue to chase the dream and get better every day and try to get a Grey Cup ring this year. I just want to win and be productive.”
The lanky 26-year-old receiver hasn’t necessarily given up on his NFL dream, but he was back with his former team only three days after the Buccaneers let him go so he could play the Labour Day rematch game against the Calgary Stampeders on Sept. 9.
“I wanted to get back to playing football quickly rather than waiting,” he explained. “I didn’t want to wait too long and not be able to play football this year.
“I just made a quick decision and this is where I was comfortable. I wanted to come back and play with some of my brothers who I got real close with for the past two years I was here. This was more than ideal; my No. 1 pick.”
Walker could have gone to any of the nine CFL teams, who all reportedly expressed an interest in the talented receiver, but he already has had a lot of success playing with quarterback Mike Reilly and he was familiar with head coach Jason Maas and offensive co-ordinator Carson Walch from last year.
Another chip in Edmonton’s favour was Walker knew most of the playbook.
“You never forget how to ride a bicycle,” he said. “You might be a little bit iffy getting back on it for a little bit and that’s kind of how I am getting used to the playbook and stuff like that. It’s stuff that you might not remember just as much, but when you start seeing it, it comes back rather quickly.
“That’s one of the reasons why I came back here,” he said. “I learned one new offence this year already – that being in Tampa – so I was like ‘I’m going to go somewhere where I’m familiar, where I’m comfortable, where I’ve been playing.’ I didn’t want to learn too, too much.”
Walker has 16 catches for 185 yards plus a two-yard touchdown run during his first two games back with the Esks.
“I felt like my production was good, but it can always be better,” he said after his first game. “I can always be a little more assignment-sound, better blocking, better route running. There’s always something to add, too.”
Walker also thought his production with the Buccaneers was good in training camp, but he didn’t get a chance to put up big numbers and prove himself during the four pre-season games, catching only one pass for 15 yards.
Apparently, Walker’s impressive CFL statistics and records were as worthless as the Canadian dollar in the United States, even if the loonie recently reached a two-year high of 82 cents.
At least Walker’s first two seasons with the Eskimos reportedly earned him a $100,000 U.S. guaranteed payment with the two-year contract he signed with Tampa Bay on Jan. 10, 2017. Among the other NFL teams interested in Walker were the Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins, Cincinnati Bengals, Jacksonville Jaguars, San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints.
The Bucs appeared to be Walker’s best option because his good friend and former Texas A&M University teammate Mike Evans, who already has three 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, and Adam Humphries, a third-year player with 82 career catches, appeared to have jobs locked down “so I could come in and fight for one of the other three spots,” Walker said.
“But after I signed, they brought in one of the best deep threats in the game in DeSean Jackson and then they drafted a receiver (Chris Godwin out of Penn State) in the third round. So now that’s four spots with one spot open. So now it makes it tough if there’s six guys battling for one spot.”
Suddenly, Walker’s 198 catches for 2,699 yards in 30 CFL games didn’t mean anything. His Eskimos record 89 catches as a rookie, his 109 receptions for 1,589 yards (both second in the league to teammate Adarius Bowman) in 2016 plus a shared club record with Bowman for the first time two Edmonton players had 100 or more catches in a single season, a CFL record for most receiving yards by teammates – he teamed up with Bowman for a combined 3,318 yards, his rookie award and back-to-back seasons as a CFL all-star could all be thrown into the discard pile as well as far as the NFL was concerned.
“I wish the outcome could have been better than it was, but there’s things outside of me that I can’t control,” he said. “That’s why I’m proud with my production, what I did down there because I controlled what I did and with the opportunities I was given, I made the most of them.
“I can’t sit there and say I got all of the opportunities I wanted in the games, but that’s the thing about that,” Walker added, “you’re not promised equal opportunities to everyone, you’re promised opportunities.
“I was just grateful to have been there and grateful to have had the opportunity.”
It’s not like the Buccaneers didn’t get to see his ability up close. For example, there was a video clip on YouTube of Walker making a one-handed catch during an OTA (organized team activities) workout in June.
“I don’t take any of it personally because, at the end of the day, me playing football outside of high school is truly a blessing,” he said.
Walker had to walk on at Trinity Valley Community College after high school because he was a slow receiver who stood only 5-foot-11 and weighed 150 pounds. A three-inch growth spurt, hitting the weight room and working on his speed improved his play enough to attract the attention of Texas A&M, where he played two years with the Aggies and caught 51 passes for 818 yards and five TDs as a senior.
He signed with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans as an undrafted free agent after college, but wasn’t given any chance to make the team during training camp.
“I didn’t touch the field at all (in pre-season games),” he said. “I didn’t play special teams nor offence when I was in Tennessee.”
He had more opportunities with Tampa Bay during practice, but not as many as he would have liked in games, where he mostly ran decoy routes and blocked.
“It was a bit different,” he said about the Tampa Bay situation, “just because I was in a better position than I was coming out of college. But the final outcome of how everything went, it basically put me back in the same situation.
“That’s the one reason why I didn’t want to wait too long (this time). I made my decision rather quickly, because they put me in the same position that I hadn’t enough game film to be picked up by the other teams. It put me in a tough position, so I wanted to come play football.”
After the Tennessee tryout in 2012, Walker played in a new NFL developmental league, but it wasn’t until he attended a tryout camp with the Eskimos in 2015 that he was able to revive his football career. He still had to be patient as he sat out the first six games that season, but when he finally got a chance to play, he made a big splash – catching 31 passes for 472 yards over his first three games.
Finally, all of Walker’s hard work was paying off.
“You get the opportunity to just go out there and play and just have fun,” he said. “The only thing you can really ask for now is another Grey Cup ring. We’re putting in the work for it for sure.”
Walker has proven he can play in the CFL. Now it’s just a case of whether he will ever get the same opportunity in the NFL.
“I know I can play there for a fact,” he said. “It’s just the business side of things didn’t fall to my side (Tampa wanted their fifth receiver to also have kick-return skills). That’s why everything went the way it did.”