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The winding journey of QB P.J. Walker from scout team kick returner and XFL to the Browns

Walker will start as the Browns QB Sunday against the Seahawks with Deshaun Watson out

PJ alker Week 8

When Bubba Ventrone was the special teams coordinator for the Colts, he knew P.J. Walker as Phil. It wasn't until a few years later that Ventrone learned he started to go by P.J.

"I still call him Phil," Ventrone said on Thursday. "He's like, 'You're the only one who calls me Phil.'"

HC Kevin Stefanski only knows him as P.J., and his teammates will call him either Phil or P.J.

Yet, he doesn't seem to have a preference. Walker said that he gets called both Phil and P.J., just depending on his relationship with the person and how long he has known them. When Walker entered the league, he went more by Phil, which is why Ventrone – even six years later – still says Phil. Now, it's more P.J.

Regardless of which name he's called, Walker will take the field on Sunday for the Browns as their starting quarterback with QB Deshaun Watson out for Week 8.  Walker first signed with the Browns to the practice squad on Sept. 4. Then, the Browns signed Walker to the active roster on Wednesday.

Yet, it hasn't been the easiest journey for him to this stage.

Walker's first stop in his NFL career was in Indianapolis, after he signed as an undrafted free agent by the Colts in 2017 out of Temple. He spent time on the practice squad, as he was signed to the practice squad 10 times through the end of the 2018 season. Walker said that he would get signed on a Friday, and then travel with the Colts on Saturday for Sunday's game. He was also a scout team kick returner for Ventrone, who was with the Colts from 2018-22.

"It was difficult, but at the end of the day, it was just me just trying to find a way to continue to stay ready and continue to get better every day. Not being in the building all the time really sucks," Walker said. "When I was there, I was just trying to find a way to get on the field as much as I can. Find a way to help the team. Anything I needed to do; I was going to do there. That was my mindset when I was there."

Ventrone recently showed a clip of Walker as a kick returner when they were both in Indianapolis in his Saturday meeting before the 49ers game – which Walker ended up starting at quarterback. The special teams unit was impressed.

"He was good," Ventrone said. "Guys were shocked that he was actually, like, the kick returner. And then I told him that I showed it, and he laughed, obviously."

Even through those struggles of finding his way as a young quarterback, Walker reflects on his time in Indianapolis with a sense of appreciation.

"I look back to 2019 when I wasn't in the league at all," Walker said. "Just sitting there watching from home. Just opportunities that present itself. You got to take full advantage of it. There's a lot of people that wish I in my shoes. So, for me to take advantage of every opportunity that I get."

The Colts released Walker in 2019, and his next stop was in the XFL with the Houston Roughnecks in 2020. In the league's inaugural season, Walker led the league with 1,338 passing yards and 15 touchdowns passes. The league cancelled the remainder of the season in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He then made the jump back to the NFL after he signed with the Panthers and was on their active roster for three seasons, from 2020-22. He appeared in 15 games with seven starts, providing him with crucial NFL playing experience. In his first two years, Walker only played one game each year. But last year, he played in five games. His time with the Panthers allowed him to get into a rhythm and a feel for the offense, and he's translated it to his time with the Browns.

Walker signed with the Browns on Sept. 4 to the practice squad after the Bears waived Walker on cutdown in August. In his time with the Browns, he's been elevated to the active roster three times this season.  As Walker entered a new team and adjusted, he had a few familiar faces from his time with the Colts in Ventrone, LB Anthony Walker Jr. and LB Matt Adams to make his transition easier.

"It felt good just to know them," Walker said. "And it's just good just to have that feeling and you ain't walking into a locker room that you don't know nobody. So that was the best feeling for me."

He has played two games with the Browns, starting against the 49ers in Week 6 and came in for Watson in Week 7 against the Colts and finished the game. He helped quarterback the Browns to back-to-back wins, completing 33-of-66 passes for 370 yards. He's thrown three interceptions and been sacked four times. Yet, he's also made big plays and executed in clutch moments.

"He's just got that gamer in him," Ventrone said. "I think he's an instinctive football player. He makes plays with his feet. He's got a strong arm, and obviously he's done a good – since he left us in Indy, back in whatever that was. I think '19 was his last year there. He's done pretty well. So, when I found out were going to get him here, I was excited to have him."

Through the last few weeks, Walker has grown more comfortable in the Browns offense. Every rep has been important for him to learn the system as fast as he can. OC Alex Van Pelt said he was impressed with Walker after Wednesday's practice when he took first team reps with how sharp he and the offense looked.

Throughout the last few weeks, Walker has relied on Watson, and said that he talks with Watson almost after every period of practice. He wants to understand what Watson sees and how he would go about some of the plays when he is out there, putting himself in Watson's shoes.

He's also relied on his communication with Stefanski, whether in practice, meetings or games to establish that dialogue. Stefanski said that he spends a lot of time in the quarterback room and in extra meetings with the intention to not only understand what they are about off the field, but also but they are comfortable with on the field.

Walker will start his second game this season against the Seahawks when the Browns travel to Seattle for Week 8. And his teammates are ready for him to lead their offense.

"I feel like he's doing a good job," WR Elijah Moore said. "You can't do nothing but stay ready and I feel like that's exactly what he's doing. We're going to see what he does Sunday."