Former Illini, Rush lineman ready for Bears debut
Derek Walker played high school football at Glenbard East and college ball at the University of Illinois. And after a short stint in the NFL, he continued his pro career with the Chicago Rush.
So it was only fitting that when Walker received his second opportunity at an NFL career, it came from his home-state team, the Bears.
The Bears signed the 25-year-old defensive lineman to the 90-player training camp roster on Aug. 7, and Walker is set to make his Chicago debut Saturday in an exhibition game against the Washington Redskins.
Walker grew up as a Bears fan, and signing with a team so close to home is a dream scenario for the Glendale Heights native.
"Just signing with any team would be great, obviously, but signing with the Bears is amazing," he said. "This is my dream. I'm happy to be back. I'm trying to make the most of it."
The Washington Redskins signed Walker as an undrafted free agent after his senior season at Illinois in 2009, but he was cut before the season. He then made the Seattle Seahawks 53-man roster but never cracked the 45-player active roster on game days. Walker finished the season with the San Francisco 49ers but was out of the league until signing with the Bears last week.
Now that he has another opportunity at an NFL career, Walker hopes to make an impression with the Bears. He says he's more confident and comfortable in his second go-round than he was coming in as a rookie.
"I really didn't know what to expect; I didn't know if I was good enough," he said. "But it's just football, which you've been playing your whole life. It's faster, people are bigger, but you know, I'm bigger, too."
Rush player personnel director Scott Bailey, who often lobbies his NFL contacts on behalf of his players, said he reached out to several teams that employ a 3-4 defensive scheme because he believes Walker is a "prototypical 3-4 D-end." But Walker's versatility, Bailey said, allows him to also fit into a 4-3 scheme, like the Bears use, as either an end or a three-technique tackle.
Walker tore his calf muscle four games into the AFL season, but after weeks of rehabbing, he worked out for the Bears in June. Team officials said if he stayed healthy, he might have a shot at joining their training camp.
Bailey happened to be at Bears camp scouting players for the Rush last week on the day the Bears signed Walker, and he was able to sign over the rights to the defensive lineman in Bourbonnais.
Bailey expects the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Walker to compete with Chauncey Davis, Cheta Ozougwu, Aston Whiteside and Corey Wootton for the fourth end spot on the 53-man roster -- or possibly the fifth if the Bears keep five ends -- behind Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and first-round pick Shea McClellin.
"He's got a chance," Bailey said. "He's got a lot of upside. He's still a relatively young guy."
Right now, Walker is focused on learning defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli's defense and gaining ground on the other lineman who have a leg up on him with an additional week of training camp practices.
"He's improving every day," said Bears defensive line coach Mike Phair. "Everybody is fighting for reps. He just keeps working hard."
Phair, who is familiar with the former all-Big Ten Honorable Mention from their days together in Seattle, said the most important thing Walker can do to impress the coaching staff is to continue putting forth a strong effort in practice and the preseason games.
"The biggest thing you can control is how hard you work," Phair said. "And he does that."
Walker is receiving more reps in practice as he settles into the system and he figures to see time with the third unit in the second half against Washington.
"You want to show you can work in practice, show progression in practice, but you've got to make plays in a game," he said. "I just want an opportunity to show what I can do."
When Walker takes the field Saturday, he won't just be playing for the Chicago coaching staff, however.
"Everybody is watching," he said. "It's a job interview for everybody. ... Even though you may not make the team that you're on, that doesn't mean another team won't want to pick you up."
If his dream scenario doesn't pan out in Chicago, 31 other teams likely will take a look at the preseason film.
"You never want to have bad tape," he said. "You always want to have positive things said about you. That's how you stay relevant."
And even if Walker's NFL comeback doesn't pan out, the Rush would certainly welcome him back.
"Obviously we hope that he sticks up there," Bailey said. "But if it doesn't work out, we're going to call him right away."