Ron Parker turned around at his locker, looked to his left and exhaled.
This was Dec. 28, and with the Chiefs’ 19-7 win over the San Diego Chargers, the 2014 season was finally in the books. Parker, 27, finally allowed himself to take stock of his overall performance over the previous five months.
Parker had been loath to do so, and with good reason — he simply didn’t want to get ahead of himself. Prior to this season, he’d had spent his career simply trying to stick in the NFL.
After going undrafted in 2011, he’d gone from Seattle to Oakland to Seattle to Carolina and back to Seattle before he was finally claimed by the Chiefs off waivers before the 2013 season. That kind of constant upheaval can make you cautious, but it can also make you grateful.
That’s why, when Parker was asked how he felt about his 2014 season, his first in the NFL as a full-time starter, he seemed fairly upbeat despite the Chiefs missing the playoffs.
“I’m just so glad and blessed the Chiefs’ organization gave me a chance to come in here and be me,” Parker said. “With them giving me the chances to go out there and play multiple positions, it just made me feel more confident within the defense.”
Parker will hit unrestricted free-agency for the first time this March with the ammunition to land a solid contract. In 16 games this year, he led the Chiefs with 84 solo tackles and finished second in pass deflections with 12. Both were career highs.
Parker, who made $645,000 last season, accomplished this by serving as the Swiss Army knife of the Chiefs’ secondary, as he flip-flopped between cornerback (four starts) and safety (11 starts).
“He plays a lot of positions for us, so we’re thankful that he’s flexible enough to do whatever we need, whether he needs to move inside or stay outside,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said during the season. “He’s a tremendous competitor — he loves to play and whatever you ask him to do he’s in it 100 percent, he doesn’t even blink an eye. … I always tell him we’re going to move him to linebacker, and he says, ‘I can do it.’”
Parker had his fair share of highs this season at cornerback, like his performance against Buffalo, when he effectively shut down Sammy Watkins.
But his lows — like his performances against Seattle and Oakland, when he was targeted 19 times and allowed 15 completions for 174 yards and two touchdowns — probably reinforced the notion that despite his size (6 feet and 206 pounds) and speed (4.35-second 40-yard dash), Parker should probably be a full-time safety, the position he played at Newberry College.
“He’s a swing guy,” Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. “He can go outside or inside. Me personally, I think he’s better inside than outside. With that being said, I think he had a nice season.”
Though he only had one interception, Parker’s ability to gobble up ground and properly diagnose the deep route combinations that tortured the Chiefs in 2013 played a role in their pass defense skyrocketing from 25th to second.
That said, based on the pending free-agent market, Parker — who would prefer to play safety, where his 2014 Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 2.8 ranks 29th among 87 players — is expected to initially ask for a four- or five-year deal seeking north of $6 million a year.
That’s a little more than Mike Mitchell — who signed a five-year, $25 million deal with Pittsburgh after a breakout 2013 campaign with Carolina — received last March. For comparisons sake, Parker in 2014 finished with more tackles (84 to 50), pass deflections (12 to eight) and three fewer interceptions (four to one) than Mitchell did in 2013.
Whether or not Parker gets that money remains to be seen — his tackling grade of negative-9.6 dragged his overall Pro Football Focus grade down to negative-5.7, which ranked 73rd out of 87 players — but it’s safe to say his departure would create another hole at what is already a fairly uncertain position for the Chiefs. Eric Berry is batling lymphoma, starter Husain Abdullah will turn 30 this year and No. 4 safety Kurt Coleman is also headed for unrestricted free-agency.
“If the chance comes up, I’m ready to be back,” Parker said of his pending free-agency, which begins March 10. “I’ll just approach it like I’ve been approaching it — I’m going to just let the business take care of itself. I’m going to go out there and control what I can control, just take care of me and wait to see where the chips fall.”
In the meantime, Parker plans to use this offseason to heal up after a long season and start training for next season. Not surprisingly, tackling is at the top of his list of self-improvement, and he also wants to work on his footwork in coverage.
But in general, after everything he’s been through while trying to make his bones as a pro, Parker is happy with his first season as a full-time contributor, and insists he still hasn’t come close to reaching his ceiling.
“This is a good beginning for Ron Parker,” he said at his locker after the final game. “Just the beginning.”