When Dave Caldwell's wallet is deeper than the Mariana Trench, it's easy to get caught up in the biggest names in the free agency market. And while it's assumed that the Jaguars will be targeting multiple high-priority guys in their free agency pursuit, the Cobb, Suh, and McCourty signings are indicative of an implacable market that will sometimes suck up your top prospect fantasies and force you to retreat to plan B prospects.
Devin McCourty stood alone as the unanimous top FS prospect before the Patriots got all selfish and paid him. It's unknown if the Jags were going to make a legitimate run at McCourty, but considering FS is a need and McCourty was the top FA option, they had to be considering it. Now, the Jaguars probably move on down their list. And while it seems like a lot of fans' FA free safety lists ended after listing "Devin McCourty," I am certain that the Jaguars' list does not.
It's time to move to plan B. I'm not denying that the Jaguars should/would have thrown money at McCourty. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he was their first priority moving into free agency. McCourty is the real deal - his ability to roam and cover ground is absolutely established. He is an elite talent that would have instantly provided an upgrade over Josh Evans at free safety.
But there are other options, like the Chiefs' Ron Parker. Guys riding under the radar like Parker seem to get lost within a teams outrageous amount of cap space. It's too easy to assign the wealthiest teams to the biggest names, falling into a pattern of assuming a team is entitled to top talent just because of money. But assumption is a dangerous thing. At the end of the day, a franchise is going to end up adding guys that make the team better - not necessarily guys we assumed they could seduce with their deep pockets. Devin McCourty sure would have been an upgrade over Josh Evans, but I think Ron Parker could fill that same hole. No doubt - an elite, Super Bowl winning safety acquisition like McCourty would pull fans off I-95 faster than a new aquarium would. But Ron Parker is a sleeper FA worth diving into.
Ron Parker, a once-bonafied cornerback, filled in for Eric Berry at safety on two seperate occasions last season. The first was weeks 3-9 when Berry injured his ankle, and again weeks 11 though the end of the season when Berry was diagnosed with lymphoma.
Ron Parker isn't celebrated as an elite prospect like McCourty. Parker spent time with the Seahawks until he was claimed by the Chiefs in 2013, finally getting a chance to shine in 2014 when Berry was burdened with unfortunate circumstances. Parker moved from his habitual CB position to fill in at strong safety, proving he was more versatile and more valuable than most people originally thought. Throughout 2014, Parker moved all over the field, proving his worth in multiple capacities in the Chiefs' secondary. Now that he is free to test the waters, it's not unreasonable to think he'd be a suitable free safety prospect for the Jags.
I'd never place Parker on the level of a McCourty. However, Parker's numbers do stand pretty damn stout in comparison. McCourty and Parker are both 27 years old. McCourty is 5'10, 195 pounds while Ron Parker stands taller at just over 6 feet and 206 pounds. It shouldn't be too far off to say that while McCourty undoubtedly fits Gus Bradley's system, Parker is a Gus Bradley-sized prospect that could grow into his role. Last year, McCourty finished with 68 tackles and two INTs while Parker finished with 94 tackles and 1 INT. Parker's film tells the tale of a determined cornerback, branching out in a safety spot, covering all corners of the Earth with a fiery demenor.
Hands down, Parker's best game came against the Bills. If there's one thing that will ensure Parker a paycheck - as a safety, CB, whatever - it's the way he single-handedly shut down Sammy Watkins for the entirety of the game.
Below, the Chiefs secondary sets up in cover 3. Parker, playing corner, has a deep zone.
You can see Parker pressing Watkins here, but he drops just before the snap.
Watkins is running a hitch, but Parker is dropping to respect the possibility of Watkins taking off down the sideline.
Here is where Watkins starts to break his route. Parker reacts, and shows great recognition to plant and get back to Watkins just as Orton releases the ball.
Parker actually wasn't considered a great CB by a lot of fans early on in his Chiefs tenure, though he made significant strides as an all-around defender throughout his 2014 campaign as he moved into positions all over the field. Parker's matured versatility is the sign of someone really coming into their own. As he breaks on the ball above, he seals a play that showcases his fine-tuned ability to react and make up ground fast - attributes you need to play corner and safety.
The play below shows another component of Parker's well-rounded game, as well an advantage you need when playing a free roaming safety - strength.
Again, Parker puts some real estate between him and Watkins. Deep alert - Watkins is going to streak down the sideline.
Parker quickly chooses his angle. He's moving to the inside of Watkins.
At the end of the play, it's a clean break-up by Ron Parker, a CB quickly turned safety in a matter of steps. But what's most impressive through this sequence is that Parker was able to get inside and push Watkins towards the sideline. The best safeties are strong enough to change a deep receiver's route by holding their ground and closing their match-up out. Above, Watkins has almost no room between himself and the sideline to make any kind of play on the ball. That's huge, considering Watkins started at the numbers before his route was influenced by the stronger Parker.
I included the play below to point out Parker's determination. The guy plays with his hair on fire. He's a Gus Bradley-fiery type of guy who's just a flat out pain in the ass for receivers - and running backs, as it turns out.
Above, you can see how the Chiefs have assigned Parker to follow Watkins wherever he goes. Parker won that battle all day long. This play, however, is actually a running play.
The running back slips through the line easily. His pupils change to dollar signs as he gains ground on the endzone. Parker tries to square up, but he's out of tackling range. Running backs don't worry about secondaries, right?
But Parker doesn't give up. He lays out and swats the SHIT out of the ball.
Ball bounces out of play. An easy Bills touchdown turns into a touchback - Chiefs ball at the 20.
Somehow, at the end of the game, the Bills still have a chance to win. They need a touchdown on what is most likely their last drive, and the Chiefs need someone to step up and hold their ground.
So after four quarters of gluing himself to Sammy Watkins, traveling all over the field, forcing a fumble, and bothering the hell out of the Bills receivers, Ron Parker steps up and defends three passes in a row.
1st pass. Stays in front of Watkins.
2nd pass. Parker drops deep and single-handedly fronts Hogan.
Last chance for the Bills. Parker cuts off Sammy's route better than Sammy himself. Game over.
And while this is all film from just one game, I though it was definitely the best showcase of Parker's versatality within several defined positions. Parker won this game for the Chiefs, and even though he did it mostly from a CB position, this game paints a vibrant list of a lot of the reasons why Parker could grow into a free safety role after being forced to grow from a CB to a strong safety.
Parker is a pass-minded defender. I think he fits the build of a free safety just as much as Josh Evans does, and it goes without saying that he could steal Evans' job pretty quickly. I also think the Jaguars are sitting in prime position to steal Parker away from the Chiefs. I have no doubt that Kansas City wants Parker back, but he's due a paycheck and not many people believe the Chiefs will put forth enough money after paying him the minimum in the past.
So while Devin McCourty takes his name out of the hat, Ron Parker's name comes to light. If Bradley and Caldwell think there could be something there, what the hell, why not bring him into camp?
Ron Parker might be a plan B, but he holds his own. Free agency isn't limited to the guys in the spotlight.