With gritty play, cornerback A.J. Parker making an impact with Lions
Allen Park — Seemingly every year, there's an undrafted free agent who comes out of nowhere to make the Detroit Lions' roster with a strong performance through training camp and the preseason.
But at this point, cornerback A.J. Parker isn't really sneaking up on anyone. The Kansas State product has been mixed in with the first-team defense for more than a week, and got the call as the starting nickelback when the team traveled to Pittsburgh for a preseason contest with the Steelers on Sunday.
More importantly, he delivered on the opportunity. Playing 30 defensive snaps, he recorded eight tackles without a whiff. In coverage, he was targeted seven times, giving up five receptions, but for a paltry 16 yards, while also breaking up a throw.
Defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant said from the time he first laid eyes on Parker, he's loved the cornerback's grit, toughness and versatility, which includes the ability to contribute on multiple special teams.
"Consistency, accountability, and trust," Pleasant said. "We trust him, as a staff, to be where he needs to be and last game he was able to make some tackles in the open field. I kinda challenged him from the week prior and the young man’s doing a great job."
After that performance, it would be more surprising if Parker isn't on the roster when the Lions open the season against the San Francisco 49ers next month.
"We knew he was an athlete and what you see is he’s very aware, he’s very smart, he’s very un-rookie-like, mentally," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "... He was on it, just mentally where he is supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be there and he’s a trustworthy player right now," Campbell said. "That’s what showed up. That’s what excites you."
Coming out of college, there wasn't much about Parker's profile that could have predicted this. At 5-foot-11, 178 pounds, he qualifies as undersized. And at his pro day, he showcased average speed and below-average explosion. Even his production at Kanas State was modest, with 17 pass breakups and six interceptions across four seasons and 36 games.
Many draft guides didn't even include him in their positional rankings, while NFL.com projected him as a seventh-round pick.
"He lacks top-end speed, but rarely finds himself getting left behind by route separation as he plays fast and with good foot agility to match route breaks," NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote after scouting Parker. "He's well-versed in press man and zone coverages. He uses his anticipation and eye discipline to pounce quickly on throws from off coverages.
"While Parker has good ball skills and a ball-hawking demeanor, he might lack the burst and length to make enough plays on the ball at the next level," Zierlein continued. "He's fearless and tough when it's time to tackle, but his slender frame could take a beating as a pro run defender. Parker wasn't a big tester at his pro day, but he knows how to play and could become a factor in camp competition for a nickel spot."
Parker admits going undrafted still stings, but it's added fuel to his fire. And in hindsight, Zierlein's evaluation looks to be spot on. Still, you wouldn't have thought so after Detroit's first padded practice three weeks ago.
On that day, Parker looked like the worst player on the field, getting beat by deep ball after deep ball. Yet he's managed to quickly fight out of that hole.
"I'm pretty confident," Parker said after Monday's practice. "It's all just based on the work you put in, offseason, in-season, after practice. I feel like I've done the work, so I'm just confident in my abilities and I'm just trying to go play my game."
Amusingly, even though Campbell said the Lions were excited to land Parker after the draft, the Lions weren't sure what they had in him, as a player. Utilizing an old tactic he picked up from mentor Sean Payton, Campbell and the Lions had several defensive rookies, including Parker, run through offensive drills to see if there was any value in moving him to wide receiver.
"He was kind of one of these sleeper free-agents that we got," Campbell said. "One of the first things we did when they came in was we let all of them run routes, even the defensive guys. He was one of them we put over there, ‘Let’s just let him run slants. Let’s let him run with the receivers,’ and it was on air. He was one of the first ones that showed up like, ‘Wow. He’s just kind of a natural athlete.’ He gets it."
That odd request, just like the awful practice, didn't seem to phase Parker. That speaks to what Campbell labels an un-rookie-like approach to this opportunity. Parker isn't afraid to try something new and he doesn't let his failures linger.
It's that mentality that has him on the cusp of realizing a more important dream than being drafted — making an NFL roster and potentially contributing as a rookie.