It was just over a year ago that Walker posted 104 yards in the Packers playoff loss to Atlanta. In a game that fans and players would just as soon forget, Walker was the lone bright spot, demonstrating for the first time all year the talent that made him the 20th player overall and third receiver taken in the draft, behind New Orleans' Donte Stallworth (13th overall) and Denver's Ashley Lelie (19th overall).
It seemed a foregone conclusion that the charismatic former Seminole w ould nab a starting spot opposite Donald Driver once Terry Glenn had departed. When injuries prevented Robert Ferguson from playing in the first two preseason games of 2003, it seemed a lock. But after a training camp that had more downs than ups, not to mention more of the drops and indecision that plagued him as a rookie, Walker found himself as the odd man out as Ferguson earned the starting nod.
While he'd remain No. 3 on the depth chart throughout the season, Walker has been Brett Favre's No. 1 deep threat and red zone target. In a year when the Packers have relied on the run more than any time in recent memory, Walker has made the most of his limited opportunities. While his 716 receiving yards are a team high, his 41 receptions are second on the team to running back Ahman Green's 50, and a whopping 76 behind league-leader Torry Holt of the St. Louis Rams.
Those numbers aren't going to put him in the Pro Bowl anytime soon, but Walker's gaudy 17.5 yard average per catch is tops among NFL receivers with at least 35 grabs and should earn him a starting spot on his team in 2004. His nine touchdown catches tie him for fifth overall in the league.
Walker started to catch fire after the team's bye week when he had two touchdowns among his three catches in the Packers upset win at the Metrodome. Three weeks later, Walker had just one reception, but it was a season-long 66-yarder that for a score in a win against San Francisco. At Oakland, Walker caught two of Favre's four touchdown passes on a night drenched in emotion and finished with a career best 124 yards receiving on four receptions. The 43-yard touchdown that he levitated up for and pulled down in between Raider defenders Phillip Buchanon and Anthony Dorsett may well be the catch of the year. All told, seven of his nine scores have come since Nov. 2, making that week off more of a breakthrough than a break for Walker.
Heading into the divisional playoff contest with the Eagles, it appears Walker couldn't have picked a better time to peak. Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent, whom Packer fans will recall was passed over in favor of Terrell Buckley back in the 1992 draft, is expected to return from a hip injury for Sunday's game. He'll join fellow corner Bobby Taylor and safety Brian Dawkins to form one of the top secondary units in the league.
While conventional wisdom says that the Packers will pound away at the Eagles defense on the ground – a plan that nearly worked when the two teams met back on Nov. 10 at Lambeau Field – Walker may be in a position to exploit the blitz-happy Birds with another big play or two. As a key cog in a resurgent passing game, Walker is forcing opponents to pick their poison. They can stack up to try and stop Green or they can focus on Favre and his receivers. But few teams have successfully done both.
If they decide to go with option No. 1, Walker's got the potential to make them pay. And where Walker's potential goes, production isn't far behind.
W. Keith Roerdink is a freelance writer from Wausau, Wis. and a longtime contributor to the Packer Report. Check out his weekly Hot Read column every Thursday.