Detroit Lions minicamp: AJ Parker not taking job security for granted

Detroit Free Press

AJ Parker had a better rookie season than almost anyone could have expected.

An undrafted rookie out of Kansas State, Parker started seven games, had one interception and was the Detroit Lions’ primary nickel cornerback for most of last season.

But on Day 2 of mandatory minicamp Wednesday, Parker explained why he is taking nothing for granted when it comes to his job security this fall.

“For me, the only difference right now is just experience,” Parker said. “I’ve been here for a year so I understand the schemes, what the coaches want from me, just what I need to do to be successful. But (I have) the same mindset coming in and fighting for a job, really.”

Parker is not a lock to make the Lions this fall, but I would put him on my 53-man roster if I was doing a projection right now. Smart teams hoard capable cornerbacks and Parker proved to be that last season, even if he likely is limited to playing slot cornerback as a pro.

He’s tough. He’s a willing tackler. He can cover inside receivers. He has special teams value. But he also has new competition for his job.

On Wednesday, Parker showed glimpses of good and bad while playing primarily with the second-team defense, behind free agent addition Mike Hughes at the slot cornerback spot.

Parker blanketed Amon-Ra St. Brown in the back of the end zone in a final-play situation during the Lions’ team period. Excitable Lions secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant was so pleased with the play that he ran onto the field to congratulate Parker for having perfect technique on his pass breakup, when he face guarded St. Brown and ripped the receiver’s arm loose before he could secure the ball.

One series later, though, Parker and safety Juju Hughes got beat on a Tim Boyle-to-Trinity Benson touchdown pass. Boyle made a great throw on the play, heaving the ball off his back foot Uncle Rico-style to Benson, who slithered open in the back corner of the end zone.

Reading the tea leaves, the Lions will start some combination of Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah, Will Harris and Mike Hughes at cornerback this fall. Harris has taken most of the No. 1 cornerback reps on the left side while Okudah rehabs from his ruptured Achilles tendon, but he has the flexibility to play inside in nickel packages as well.

Parker, Jerry Jacobs (once he’s healthy), Bobby Price, Savion Smith and rookie seventh-round pick Chase Lucas are among others competing for a handful of spots at cornerback.

The Lions could go heavy at the position, given the health of Okudah and Jacobs, and they have position flexibility in the secondary with Harris and Ifeatu Melifonwu capable of playing both corner and safety.

Still, Parker knows nothing is guaranteed in Detroit.

“This is the NFL, man,” he said. “Your job’s really never safe so it’s always about getting better and working, so that’s all I’m focused on is just trying to get better.”

More observations from Wednesday’s practice:

• Melifonwu has not taken part in the Lions’ last three open practices dating back to last week because of an undisclosed injury. He’s a player who needs reps, at safety and cornerback, to have a meaningful role this fall.

More: Detroit Lions rookie DL Josh Paschal has lower body injury; CB Jermaine Waller retires

Okudah, Jacobs, DeShon Elliott, Jonah Jackson, DJ Chark, Jameson Williams, Romeo Okwara, James Mitchell, Natrez Patrick and Josh Paschal were among others who were extremely limited or non-participants Wednesday. Jackson had his right arm heavily wrapped. He did some footwork drills by himself in individual period, but did not take part in any team drills.

• The Lions scored three straight touchdowns in their end-of-half scenarios Wednesday, giving the defense plenty to fix in film review.

Parker’s PBU came on a first-and-10 from the 18-yard line with 10 seconds on the clock, enough time essentially to get off one play. Benson, who has popped at times this spring, caught his touchdown in the same go-to-have-it scenario, while the next two scores came on the second of a two-play sequence.

On first-and-10 from the 25 with 10 seconds on the clock and one timeout in his pocket, Jared Goff threw short to St. Brown for a 12-yard gain then found D’Andre Swift leaking out the left side of the formation for a touchdown on the ensuing play. Julian Okwara dropped into pass coverage on that side of the field and may have been the culprit, giving Swift too much cushion.

Boyle, likewise, threw short to Tom Kennedy on first down, then found Kennedy again on a corner route over two defenders for the TD. Kennedy celebrated by kicking the ball into the air.

• Boyle was back working with what appeared to be the second-team offense Wednesday after David Blough’s strong showing Tuesday. The Lions are wise to rotate Boyle and Blough with the second-team, as the No. 3 offense has had persistent issues in protection (and with receivers getting separation) that muddy the evaluation of whichever quarterback is under center with that group for the day.

• With Elliott and Melifonwu out, Brady Breeze took first-team reps at safety alongside Tracy Walker on Tuesday. Breeze deflected a pass near the line of scrimmage on a Goff roll out on a situational third-and-goal play. Goff was rolling to his right and trying desperately to direct Josh Reynolds in the opposite direction across the end zone, but Reynolds did not see his quarterback motioning until it was too late.

n With Chark out, the Lions top receiver group in pre-practice walk-through was Reynolds, St. Brown and Kalif Raymond, with Benson, Kennedy and Quintez Cephus also working on the No. 1 field. Logan Stenberg took first-team reps at left guard in Jackson’s place.

• The Lions mix up their personnel pretty regularly, but Jared Davis has spent the past few days on the No. 2 field in pre-practice walk-through. I don’t think that indicates his job is in jeopardy, necessarily. Davis is calling plays as a middle linebacker while with his group, and on Wednesday he was paired quite a bit with rookie Malcolm Rodriguez in team drills.

On the No. 1 field in pre-practice walk-through, the linebacker pairings were Alex Anzalone and Chris Board, who will vie for a starting job this fall, and Derrick Barnes and Josh Woods.

• Lions owner Sheila Hamp attended practice Wednesday, and spent a few minutes talking with a member of the HBO “Hard Knocks” promo crew, which was back for a second straight day.

• Last note for the day: One thing I’ve noticed the Lions doing under new offensive coordinator Ben Johnson that could cause trouble for the other team, they break the huddle and get lined up quickly, which often leaves the defense scrambling to match up its assignments.

On Tuesday, Goff threw an easy touchdown pass on one play when the defense was not quite lined up properly.

That’s part of the back-and-forth game Dan Campbell talked about before practice that’s going on between Johnson and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn as they get their troops ready to play, and it’s something Cephus said the Lions will able to use to their advantage this fall.

“Using the tempo to get up to the line, not letting them figure out where we are, where the strength of the formations are and stuff moving fast, kind of confuse the defense,” he said. “That’s another thing that we try to throw at them from time to time.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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