Nickel corner AJ Parker continues to be pleasant surprise for Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — As the Detroit Lions navigate a slow and thorough rebuild of a defensive unit that set franchise-worst marks in points and yards allowed last season, there's been a clear focus on building upon a young foundation. 

That group includes rookies such as Alim McNeill, Levi Onwuzurike and Derrick Barnes, as well as second-year players Julian Okwara and Jeff Okudah, at least before the latter suffered a season-ending injury. 

Lions cornerback AJ Parker.

But somewhat lost in that mix has been AJ Parker, the undrafted rookie who came out of nowhere to earn the starting nickel corner job, and who has continued to excel in the role to start the season. 

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Playing a tick more than half of the team's defensive snaps, the Kansas State product has been one of the team's better defensive players through two games. According to Pro Football Focus, he's not only been one of the league's most assignment-sound rookie defensive backs, he's ranked top-3 on Detroit's roster in coverage, tackling and run defense. 

“I do think he’s playing well," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "He’s another one of our young guys, undrafted rookie who is playing more like a vet. I would say he’s a level 401 thinker, which is good for a rookie and he plays that way. He’s one step ahead and I think he kind of knows his own limitation and is able to overcome that a little bit."

One thing that jumps out when reviewing Parker's performance is how little he's been targeted. While it can be tough to separate how much of that had to do with the opposing game plans vs. how tight Parker is blanketing his assignments, he's seen just three throws his direction.

And while he's given up receptions on all three of those targets, he's limited the damage to a paltry 10 yards, quickly wrapping up his man each time. 

"My confidence is high, man," Parker said. "I've been playing football for a long time, and it's been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, so I just want to come in here and make the most of every opportunity I can get."

This week, against the Baltimore Ravens, Parker's role in the run game will be equal to his coverage responsibilities. On many plays, he'll have a gap to fill as Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and the team's dynamic trio of running backs will seek to gash the opposition on the ground, like they've successfully done week after week. 

"I've got to play sound defense," Parker said. "I can't jump out of gaps and I can't be out of position. I have to be in the perfect position every time, and do my job every time. That's how we'll be successful."

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers