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Despite cast and position change, Will Parks having best year with Denver defense

The soon-to-be-free agent hopes he and his 2016 draft mates can get first win today against Chiefs.
Credit: AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
Denver Broncos strong safety Will Parks during the first half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Denver.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In two weeks and a few hours, the Broncos will complete their regular season by finishing up their game against the rival Raiders, and Will Parks’ four-year contractual obligation in Denver will have essentially expired.

And when it does, the first thing he and his agent should do is update his player profile.

“They’re going to have to put every position on there,’’ Parks said with a laugh.

It currently lists “safety” as his position, as it has throughout his four years since the Broncos made him a sixth-round pick out of the University of Arizona in 2016. The idea at the time was Parks would be a special teams standout who could eventually help out as a strong safety.

He’s become more.

At the very least, nickel corner, or slot corner, or No. 3 corner should accompany his base position of safety on his player biography sites. Since Game 7 when he opened the Broncos' highly anticipated game with the Kansas City Chiefs at Empower Field before a Thursday night primetime audience by lining up directly across none other than Tyreek Hill, Parks has played cornerback.

“We all know he’s probably the fastest guy to ever step on the football field in the last 50 years,’’ Parks said of Hill. “To line up in front of him – I like it, though. It gives me a chance to expand my playmaking ability and let the coaches know I’m able to run with guys that fast and that caliber. It’s always exciting to face a guy like that. Good player, too. It’s good to get your nose wet and face guys like that.”

The list is long of NFL cornerbacks who later transitioned to safety, especially during Denver’s Orange Crush era under Joe Collier in the 1970s and ‘80s. Billy Thompson, Steve Foley, Tyrone Braxton, Mike Harden, even Dennis Smith – name a great Broncos safety from yesteryear and chances are he first played cornerback. Collier believed learning the up defensive back position first helped the player’s overall awareness when he moved to the back end.

Presently, Kareem Jackson is a cornerback by trade who is now a safety.

What Parks is doing, though, is rare. You just don’t see many defensive backs shift from safety, where tackling and field awareness are the top two priorities, to cornerback, where speed and technique are the essentials.

“First, it’s the coaches trusting in my ability to move my feet well and my hands and make plays on the ball,’’ said Parks. “Obviously, playing the nickel you’re in a lot of two-way go situations. You’ve got to go this way or that way and get there fast.’’

By that he means he covers slot receivers whose routes often have the option of cutting left, cutting right, or taking off up the seam.

“You’re the guy on the field with the least amount of help,’’ Parks continued. “And having the experience in Arizona, playing nickel and then going back to safety that kind of helped me out, too.’’

Parks was moved to the nickel out of necessity. Bryce Callahan, Chris Harris Jr., and Isaac Yiadom were supposed to be the Broncos’ top three corners but only Harris held up his end of the bargain from Day 1 this season.

“He’s kind of right in between there as a full-time safety or a cover guy,’’ said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, referring to Parks’ 6-foot-1, 194-pound frame and skill set. “He’s got versatility. He’s done that in his past here. We liked him in that role and we see a good future for him there for us.”

It’s even more difficult going from safety to nickel corner with a heavy cast wrapped around a player’s surgically repaired left thumb. Parks suffered the injury in the second quarter of that aforementioned Chiefs’ game. He needed surgery to repair the badly torn up thumb, took two games off, played in the next three games, had another surgery to remove the rods and pins, had it stitched back up and re-casted, and didn’t miss the next game against Houston.

Parks played extremely well last week, too, coming up with an interception, a pass breakup and four tackles against the Texans. He played 81 percent of the defensive snaps, a fair share of which were lined up against sublime receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the slot.

“There’s no excuses,’’ Parks said. “You’ve got to produce. That’s been my motto. I’ve tweeted that throughout the year plenty of times. If I’m out there on the field I have to be able to do everything I would do if I didn’t have the cast.’’

Parks is among the Broncos’ 2016 draft class that has his contract expire at season’s end. First-round pick Paxton Lynch is long gone and second- and fourth-round selections Adam Gotsis and Devontae Booker are not expected back.

Third-round pick Justin Simmons isn’t going anywhere. Sources tell 9NEWS Simmons would get the franchise tag – estimated at $12.735 million -- if the team can’t work out a long-term contract extension before the start of free agency in March.

The Broncos’ first sixth-round pick, fullback Andy Janovich has already been re-signed to a new contract and seventh-round punter Riley Dixon was traded to the Giants, where he just received a three-year contract extension.

That leaves fifth-round center Connor McGovern and Parks, the second of the Broncos’ sixth-round picks in 2016 heading for the uncertain in the exciting realm that is unrestricted free agency. Both would like to return to the Broncos.

And the Broncos would like both back. For Parks, though, the question is, has he graduated from the team as a backup, as Shaq Barrett did last year? Like Barrett, Parks has earned the chance to start. The question is, where? Safety? Safety and nickel corner? Denver or with another team?

“That’s the end goal. I want to be in a position where I’m a starter and be in a position where I’m the leader,’’ he said. “A lot of guys on the team call me a leader, but it obviously means something when you’re out there with the first Marines, I want to say. First line of battle."

“But, yeah, who wouldn’t want to start in this great league no matter what team you’re on?" Parks said.

“I haven’t really been thinking about it, but when I talked to guys like yourself it’s a question I think on. Obviously, it’s a business first and foremost. Do you want to stay somewhere or are you able to get a nice deal with another team? So I think every game is a resume’ for each individual to put it all out there."

“Obviously, we’re playing for the Broncos but we all know whatever contract is out there you’re playing for multiple teams. You never know what can happen," Park said. "They might have a different need there and they might let you go to get somebody else. There’s a whole bunch of different things going but I think the main thing is the Kansas City Chiefs right now.’’

About those Chiefs. The Broncos’ 2016 draft class is winless against them. For some in that draft class, the game Sunday at what will be chilly Arrowhead Stadium will be their last chance.

“I’m 0-7 against the Chiefs. Never beat them yet,’’ Parks said. “That alone is enough motivation for myself and at least the class of 2016 and beyond that to go out there and – we owe these guys something."

“We don’t just owe the Chiefs something, we owe our organization something by beating a great team like that with all those many great players on their (offensive) side of the ball. We all know what kind of offense they have but I think the biggest thing for us is to just play Broncos football. The way we’ve been doing things the last, I want to say the last four weeks with our defense, that’s what’s going to be in control of this game over there in Arrowhead.”

Win or lose the game against the Chiefs, stay or go after this season ends in two weeks, Parks sounded more than satisfied when asked to sum his four seasons here.

“It’s been amazing. From Pat Bowlen down to Joe Ellis down to John Elway down to the Bowlen family, all the way down to the janitors, this has been a first-class organization from day 1,’’ he said. “It’s crazy because I came here on a (pre-draft) visit. I visited multiple teams and when I went back to Arizona, I was talking to a bunch of my former teammates and I don’t know why, but I had seen all this orange and blue around in Tucson."

“There were Bronco fans all around Arizona. I ended up coming here and the city embraced me with open arms since day 1 and my family. My mom and dad when they come out here, it’s just a world-class city. I’ve been excited the last four years.’’

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