Following day three of Raiders training camp, I waited outside the Raiders locker room to speak with their new starting defensive tackle, Vance Walker. The person who emerged to speak with me was a bit unexpected. The weight that he had carried in his midsection was nearly non-existent and appeared to have moved to his chest.
I nearly didn't recognize him. Though I had watched him in training practice with his teammates for the past three days, this was the first time I'd seen him in street clothes since minicamp in early June. Since then, he has been hard at work preparing for his new role as full time starting defensive tackle.
Though Walker started eight games last season for the Falcons, this is his first shot at being the fulltime starting defensive tackle from the start of training camp. He approached the off-season differently than he had in his first four seasons in the NFL.
"The primary thing was just to be in better shape than I have been as far as my previous years because I was only playing say 50% of the snaps," said Walker. "I have to be in much better shape because obviously I'll be playing a lot more here. So, better shape, strength and conditioning, strength being the biggest thing. I like the program that they have here with the strength and conditioning and basically I continued that into the off-season for that four or five weeks that I had off. I continued to build upon it. Basically just strength, speed, and agility. With the Falcons I was always around 318 playing that nose tackle one technique, three technique and even defensive end but now it's strictly three technique so I can get off the ball. I've already increased my speed. . . I'm already around 307 right now and that will be my playing weight."
There have been a few Raiders who have gone through similar workout regimens in recent memory for the Raiders. Most recently was left tackle Jared Veldheer who grabbed some headlines when his the gym where he works out in the off-season Tweeted out pics of his Hulk-like physique.
The most similar situation to Walker was Lamarr Houston who last off-season shed 20 pounds to go from 305 pounds to 285 pounds. The result was his best season at defensive end of his career. He now has Dennis Allen talking about him as being an elite player this season.
Walker too is looking to have a breakout season. The former sixth round pick came out of the shadows last season to prove he is worth a shot to be a starter, now looks to prove he deserves to remain a starter in this league.
He has always had pressure to perform in his career. Now, it's a new pressure.
"The pressure? Yes, to produce," Walker continued. "Even as a backup though, this is the NFL, you always have to produce. Obviously there should be a bit more pressure as a starter but you have be more comfortable with your abilities and your work ethic and everything that you've done up to this point to know that it will get you through all the hard times that you'll face."
The fifth year defensive tackle is finally looking to break out and has a lot to prove. That was a common theme among the Raiders' free agent signings this off-season.
"I know when I come out here I'm gonna give my 100% and the guys with me are going to give it as well," said Walker. "There's no ‘Oh, I've already made it, I'm gonna relax on this play.' There's nothing like that going on."
One guy whose career trajectory has been nearly identical to Walker's is middle linebacker, Nick Roach. Both players were finally given a shot to be starters part of the way through last season and look to cement their NFL careers with the Raiders.
"I would imagine if I wrote down everything that I want from this season and onward, I'm 100% (sure) they would fall in line with what [Nick Roach] wants. The biggest thing is just us as a defense. If we're successful, everybody's successful."
The Raiders defense as a whole should take a cue from Vance Walker because a sleeker, tougher, and faster product on the field is exactly what this team needs.