The next great Broncos safety wore a Predator mask. It was painted orange and blue.
“It’s my birthday. It’s a birthday present,” Will Parks told me Saturday, when he turned 23 years old. The plastic mask Parks wore while walking off the field at Broncos training camp was a given to him by a fan. “It fits my head perfectly.”
On an NFL team with a storied history of slobber-knocking safeties, T.J. Ward is the present. But the future is coming, hard and fast. Look into the future, and it seems increasingly likely Ward won’t be wearing a Denver uniform beyond this season.
While the uproar in Broncos Country is all about whether Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch should be a starting quarterback, there are whispers too loud to ignore about how much the Denver coaching staff likes Parks. This makes for a fascinating – and slightly awkward – situation in a sport where being 30 years old and expensive makes a veteran vulnerable, no matter how valuable he is to one of the NFL’s top defenses.
Ward is a glue guy, as smart on the field as he is tough. In three seasons since joining the Broncos, the 30-year-old safety has earned two trips to the Pro Bowl. He’s one of the top 125 players in the league. What’s more, on a franchise known for great safeties, Ward has been a worthy successor to Billy Thompson, Dennis Smith, Steve Atwater and John Lynch.
In the final season of a contract that will pay Ward a $4.5 million salary, a new deal with Denver has yet to be seriously discussed, despite Ward’s expressed interest in an extension. This is not to say president of football operations John Elway is definitely nudging Ward toward the door. But unless you’re Kermit drinking tea, it’s plain to see the Broncos are slowly grooming Parks to take Ward’s place.
In the NFL, money is the only genuine expression of love for a player. I asked Ward on the first day of training camp if it stung that Denver has thus far been reluctant to show him the money.
“No, I don’t take it personal. Because it’s business,” Ward replied. “It’s happened to thousands, hundreds of thousands players, and T.J. Ward is not an exception. You’ve just got to deal with it how it is. And, at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what’s right, what’s good for you and your family.”
Parks is a personal favorite of new defensive coordinator Joe Woods, who informed the safety from Arizona weeks before the 2016 NFL draft to be ready for a move to Denver. “He told me that face-to-face,” Parks recalled. “He basically told me: ‘We’re coming to get you, we just don’t know when.”
After being drafted in the sixth round, Parks appeared in all 16 regular-season games as a rookie and won one for Denver, by returning a blocked extra point for a defensive two-point conversion as the Broncos beat New Orleans 25-23 in the final 90 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Although he entered the league with the versatility to play either safety position at the back end of Denver’s secondary, Parks has beefed up 10 pounds since last season, because when I asked him where he saw his future, the response was: “I like strong safety more.”
Looking to earn more playing time, Parks views his first opportunity in the Broncos’ dime coverage, replacing a linebacker in obvious passing situations. He wants to live more in the box. “When people try to describe football as a grown-man’s game that’s where it starts at — and that’s where it ends at — most of the time,” Parks said.
Nothing is forever in the NFL. Not even the No Fly Zone. As Ward will be the first to acknowledge, a change in personnel is never personal in pro football. It’s strictly business.
“I take some things personal, even though they’re not supposed to be and you’ve got to work against human nature,” Ward said. “9-7 last year, not my best season, got hurt toward the end of the season. There was a bunch of stuff that I didn’t live up to last year. So that’s what I’m working on.”
Atwater was known as The Silent Assassin.
Could Parks make a name for himself as The Predator? This is how Parks describes how he likes to play: “Get in your face and get dirty with you.”
Quarterback controversies are fun because Siemian vs. Lynch is an argument where the 2 cents of any Broncomaniac is welcome. But the roster churn essential in a salary-cap league will have Denver management analyzing throughout the season whether Parks is ready to take Ward’s job. If you love the business of football, it will be fascinating to watch.