Safety in num­bers – and un­der the mi­cro­scope

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - Mark Kiszla: mk­is­zla@den­ver­ or @markkis­zla

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.

Den­ver Post Colum­nist MARK KISZLA

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