Depth charts in training camp can be a mirage.
Like pitchers working on specific pitches in spring training, football coaches sometimes spend their summers moving players around while tinkering with their team.
“Just because you see them as a starter, that’s an illusion in my eyes,” Detroit Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant said. “It’s giving every guy an opportunity, continue to be their best selves, and in order to do that sometimes as a coach, you might have to fabricate it.”
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Fabricated or not, undrafted rookie cornerback A.J. Parker is making the most of his opportunity as the Lions’ slot cornerback.
Mike Ford opened training camp as the Lions’ starter and could very well end up there for next month’s season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
But since Ford moved to outside cornerback earlier this month, Parker has taken most of the first-team reps and shined while doing so.
He had eight tackles, two for loss, and a pass breakup in last week’s preseason loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and looks like the latest in an impressive line of undrafted finds by first-year Lions general manager Brad Holmes.
As college scouting director of the Los Angeles Rams the past seven seasons, Holmes was the driving force behind L.A.’s addition of slot cornerback Darious Williams (off the waiver wire after the Rams failed to sign him after the draft) and starting linebacker Troy Reeder. Williams is one of the best nickel defenders in the NFL, while Reeder finished second on the Rams with 81 tackles last season after going undrafted in 2019.
“He’s somebody that I know we were all excited about in the spring,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said of Parker. “He was kind of one of these sleeper free agents that we got.”
A three-year starter at Kansas State, Parker saw time at slot and outside cornerback, safety and on special teams for the Wildcats.
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He missed the end of the 2019 season with a fractured ankle and had modest production (39 tackles, one interception) in last year’s COVID campaign, but Campbell said Parker’s athleticism stood out as soon as he arrived in Allen Park.
“One of the first things we did when they came in was we let all of them run routes, even the defensive guys,” Campbell said. “And he was one of them we put over there, let’s just let him run slants, let him run with the receivers. It was on air, but he was one of the first ones who showed like, ‘Wow.’ He was just kind of a natural, gets it. He’s played receiver before, so 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. Like he’s on top of it. And he’s a player that really, especially after (Saturday) night, to go against the group that he went against and to watch his physicality, he’s not a huge guy but man, he mixed it up. He was on it.”
Parker made two tackles in run support against the Steelers and jarred loose a pass with a big hit on bruising running back Najee Harris.
Pleasant said he challenged Parker to make more plays in the open field last week following the rookie’s one-tackle performance in his preseason debut.
“Consistency. Accountability. And trust,” Pleasant said. “We trust him as a staff to be where he needs to be. … Young man’s doing a great job.”
Parker said he is focused on trying to improve his ball production and be a bigger contributor on special teams. But as camp winds down, he seems assured of a roster spot when the Lions cut to 53 players next week and just might hear his name called in the season opener Sept. 12.
“It’s just football, so got to go to work every day and do what I’ve been doing for basically my whole life,” Parker said. “It’s just one of those things where I’m just grateful for this opportunity and trying to make the most of it.”