Bulked-up AJ Parker holding down Lions' nickel corner job, but challengers loom
Allen Park — What a difference a year has made in the life of Detroit Lions cornerback AJ Parker.
An undrafted rookie out of Kansas State in 2021, Parker was just starting to turn heads around this time last year. It was the beginning of an unexpected run that resulted in him surging past veterans Corn Elder and Nickell Robey-Coleman on the depth chart to not only to win a roster spot, but Detroit's starting nickel job.
And while that rookie year came with some predictable lumps, Parker's natural instincts and aggressiveness showed up in his performance. In 13 games, including seven starts, he produced 50 tackles, seven pass breakups and a forced fumble.
And even though the Lions brought in some fresh blood to compete for that role this year, namely former first-round pick Mike Hughes and rookie Chase Lucas, Parker has maintained a firm grasp on the job, seeing nearly every first-team rep when the team has been in a nickel defense.
Still, though he's no longer clawing from the bottom of the pile trying to get noticed, Parker said little has changed about his mindset from last offseason.
"The biggest difference is I got the year under my belt, I got the experience, so I kind of know what it’s going to be like," Parker said. "But the mindset is still the same. I’ve still got to earn every day."
Despite no one being a clear challenger to Parker's hold on the role, Lions coach Dan Campbell insists it remains an open competition, with the expectation Hughes, in particular, will get more snaps with the top defensive grouping as camp progresses.
As for Lucas, the seventh-round pick out of Arizona State, Campbell praised him earlier in the week for standing out among the team's rookies, but also noted he's clearly behind the other two in this battle.
"Lucas is improving and particularly I like some of the things he’s doing on special teams, but he’s just — he’s got a ways to go but he’s working," Campbell said.
With Parker, Campbell's biggest concern was durability. That makes sense for a player who arrived in Detroit weighing under 180 pounds. And given his willingness to throw his body around, it's not surprising that Parker dealt with injuries as a rookie. He missed practice time and four games with neck, shoulder and ankle issues last season.
"It’s not, 'Is he smart enough? Is he quick enough? Is he going to tackle?'" Campbell said. "That’s got nothing to do with it. He’s crafty, smart — particularly for a (young player) who’s just continuing to grow and he’s getting better as he’s developing. It was more that side of, man, his durability. So, that was a point of emphasis in the spring, in the offseason was, ‘Man, you’ve got to get a little bit bigger. You’ve got to get a little bit stronger, a little more powerful.'"
And to Parker's credit, he has. He returned from his offseason break early and put in time with both the team's nutrition and training staff to pack some meat on his 5-foot-11 frame. And while it might not sound like much, he managed to check into camp about 10 pounds heavier than a year ago.
“I’ll say the strength coaches did a really good job," Parker said. "So I came up early this offseason and just got to work with the strength coaches, got on a good meal plan, and tried to put on as much healthy weight as I could. It’s just been helping me stay in the box more.”
Adding the weight also called for improved conditioning, but two weeks into camp Parker feels like he's settling into a groove with his build.
“First couple days, it’s just a difference," Parker said. "But the work I put in running in the offseason and all the other stuff kind of got me used to it and got me ready for it. The conditioning had to come in a little later, getting used to carrying all that weight, but I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of being conditioned with it."
Now, the goal is to finish where he's started this offseason — as the starting nickel.
"I’ve got to earn every play, every rep," Parker said. "So every time I’m out here, I have to put my best foot forward."