One year ago, the Denver Broncos were coming off a World Championship. They wreaked havoc throughout the AFC playoffs and knocked off Carolina in Super Bowl 50, due to their phenomenal defense.
It could be said that the tip of that spear was the No Fly Zone secondary. The Broncos had just signed safety Darian Stewart one year earlier and had T.J. Ward locked down contractually for another couple seasons, but beyond their starting tandem, the team had little depth to speak of at safety.
The Broncos approached the 2016 NFL Draft clearly focused on bolstering their safety depth. Denver pulled the trigger in the third round, selecting Boston College's Justin Simmons. GM John Elway would double down, taking Arizona's Will Parks with the 219th pick in the sixth round.
Parks joined Simmons at rookie mini-camp and the two were seemingly joined at the hip all through training camp and into the regular season. Outside of first rounders, no draft pick is guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster.
However, it's fair to say that Simmons' relatively high draft pedigree gave him a more open road to the roster. As for Parks, he would truly have to earn it and vanquish veteran Shiloh Keo in order to make the 53.
Parks competed hard in camp and played with physicality in preseason action and when Keo was suspended two games for an offseason DUI, the Broncos ultimately chose to keep Parks and hand Keo his walking papers before he was even finished serving his sentence.
As a prospect, Parks was considered to be a box safety with questionable coverage skills. However, he managed to hold his own as a rookie and earn the trust of the coaching staff.
Parks saw snaps with the first-team defense, especially when Simmons suffered a hand injury early in the season. When he was on the field, we saw his firebrand attitude and physical style of play. Still, every time a ball was thrown into his coverage, I held my breath.
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Parks still has a ways to go as a cover artist, but T.J. Ward built a Pro Bowl career on wrecking shop in the box and at the point of attack. Ward still can't cover an athletic tight end. Parks' career trajectory is likely to follow a similar path, projecting more as a strong (box) safety.
As a rookie, Parks appeared in all 16 games, tallying 17 tackles (12 solo), one interception, three passes defensed and five special-teams stops. Perhaps the biggest impact he made as a rookie was on a special teams play in conjunction with Justin Simmons.
It was Simmons who leaped the long-snapper in a Week 10 road battle in New Orleans to block an extra point that would have given the Saints a one-point lead with time running out in the fourth quarter. The ball bounced and was scooped up by Parks who tip-toed down the left sideline, ultimately taking the ball to the house for a two-point score.
That phenomenal play gave Denver a 25-23 victory and a 7-3 record heading into their bye week. Unfortunately, the Broncos came out of their bye flat, winning just two of their final six games. They missed the playoffs for the first time in Elway's front-office tenure.
But Parks saw a total of 269 snaps on defense, which was a considerable amount considering Denver's talent at the top of the depth chart. He and Simmons laid a solid foundation that they can build on in year two.
T.J. Ward is in the final year of his contract. The play of Parks, and Simmons, will determine whether or not the Broncos end up re-signing Ward. Nothing in the NFL is guaranteed for sixth round picks, but with Parks' intensity and physicality, he fits right in on the Broncos defense.
I liked the Will Parks pick and one year removed, I believe the Broncos mined some great value with that sixth round pick. But the onus is on Parks to continue to prove his value to the front office, and perhaps more importantly, to the new coaching regime.
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Chad Jensen is the Publisher of Mile High Huddle. You can find him on Twitter @ChadNJensen.