How DeVante Parker is erasing 'bust' talk, rewriting his Dolphins story

DAVIE, Fla. -- DeVante Parker still remembers the social media comments, the ones players try to avoid reading, even though it's nearly impossible in this era.

"You're a bust. Waste of a pick. Injury-prone. Charmin soft," Parker grimaced as he recalled the harshest comments.

This offseason, he used it as motivation. The shirt he rocked heading into the Miami Dolphins' 37-31 upset win against the Philadelphia Eagles -- a game he finished with a career-high 159 receiving yards and two touchdowns -- summed it up. "Do it for the Doubters," it said.

"I was perceived as a bust. Some of [the media] said it, too. Things change now," Parker said.

Parker, Miami's first-round pick in 2015 (14th overall), is right. He's rewriting his narrative in his fifth NFL season, on track to surpass 1,000 yards for the first time, with 53 catches for 854 yards and six touchdowns through 12 games. Parker, 26, is establishing himself as a core piece for the rebuilding Dolphins (3-9).

"I've always had a lot of confidence in DeVante. I remember even when I wasn't even here and coaching at another organization, him coming out -- his skill set -- I thought he had some special qualities for a big player," Dolphins receivers coach Karl Dorrell said. "He's become a really good player by practicing and playing hard. ... I feel good about where his development is, and I know that he's going to get even better."

Remaining healthy, playing hurt

It has been a long journey for Parker, who always had the talent but never lived up to his first-round expectations. There were multiple reasons for that, most of them related to his inability to stay healthy and play at a high level when he wasn't 100 percent.

Parker enjoyed chicken nuggets and other unhealthy foods, skipping breakfast and playing video games into the early morning, habits previous Dolphins regimes tried to break. His decision to start taking care of his body seems to have unlocked the best version of him.

Parker started acupuncture and weekly massages to maximize recovery after games and practices. He improved his eating habits, started hydrating better and made treatment a priority if an injury came up. Strength and conditioning coach Dave Puloka also helped Parker gain muscle and quickness through his offseason workout plan.

"It's up to the player. When you're 22 years old and you're just coming in the league and it's the first time you've ever had any money and it's the first time you're dealing with playing in this league and it's a long season, some of those things that you're talking about -- acupuncture and massages and hydration -- they kind of fall by the wayside," Dolphins coach Brian Flores said. "As you get older in this league, you understand that those things are very important and that everything you do counts."

Dorrell and offensive coordinator Chad O'Shea can't remember Parker missing one practice since the spring. That's a remarkable turnaround for a player who missed game action and practices because of nagging injuries in each of his first four seasons. He missed eight games the past two seasons.

"When you are available and you're at practice, you're going to improve, and I think that's the one thing that he's really embraced," O'Shea said.

Dorrell recalls telling Parker stories of players he coached, such as Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, and what made them great. The common thread was learning the importance of professionalism, taking care of their bodies and knowing the difference between "hurt" and "injured."

"Most of the great players in this league, they play the game hurt. Sometimes you're not feeling great, and you have to still shine," Dorrell said. "Everybody is sore at this part of the season, but [you] can do it better than most. He's understanding that and building upon that."

What does Parker say he will appreciate most from this 2019 season? "Staying healthy was my top goal," he said. "That has helped change everything."

Securing the 50-50 balls

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick figured the coverage was tight, and it would take a great grab from Parker to secure his fourth-down heave along the left sideline. Even if Parker did that, Fitzpatrick figured, there was no way he could keep his feet in bounds. But Parker did. He "Mossed" cornerback Ronald Darby, tight-roped the sideline and scored the Dolphins' opening touchdown to set the tone for their improbable win against the Eagles.

"That was amazing," Fitzpatrick said. "I talk about him every week as just being a consistent, reliable guy that he really got it going [Sunday] and really fueled us as an offense. He wanted that ball on every play ... when you're throwing to a guy like that that's making plays like that, it's easy to play quarterback."

Since Fitzpatrick reentered the starting lineup in Week 7, Parker has 40 catches for 625 yards and four touchdowns. He ranks third among all receivers in yards, is tied for fifth in catches and is tied for sixth in touchdowns in that span.

Parker says he loves playing with Fitzpatrick because he allows him to make plays, adding, "if I see it in the air, it's mine."

The duo's timing has been money since spring. Fitzpatrick, the gunslinger, loves to rip it deep. At 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, he loves to rip the ball out of a defender's grasp and make a big play. It's the former basketball player in Parker who relishes securing the rebound.

Parker leads the league with four tight-window (within 1 yard of a defender) receiving touchdowns, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Against Philly, he became the fourth player this season with multiple tight-window receiving touchdowns in a game.

"Your ability to win the 50-50 ball really separates you as a player, and I certainly thought he separated himself by winning those," said O'Shea, who was the Patriots' receivers coach for the past decade before he became the Dolphins' playcaller in February.

With four games left, Parker is 146 yards shy of the elusive 1,000-yard season. If he stays healthy, that benchmark should be obtainable for the Dolphins' most consistent offensive player this season.

"It would be amazing to get it. I've never had it since high school," Parker said. "The team is No. 1, but everybody has goals, and that definitely is one of mine."

Clean slate, bright future

Parker was surprised to re-sign a two-year deal with the Dolphins in March. He was coming off his worst season as a pro, it seemed the fan base had completely turned on him, and his relationship with former coach Adam Gase had turned rocky near the end.

"These new coaches gave me an opportunity," Parker said. "They believed in me. They gave me a fresh chance. It's like the past couple of years never happened. It's been a blessing."

Parker has taken advantage of it, and now Dolphins fans can dream of the receiving duo of Parker and rookie Preston Williams for years to come.

"He's developing into the player that everybody thought he could be," Dorrell said of Parker.

Teammates who saw Parker deal with the adversity glow when they talk about how he has redefined himself.

"I couldn't be more happy for him because he's taken a lot of criticism that he didn't deserve in the past, and he's been making a ton of plays," tight end Mike Gesicki said.

Center Daniel Kilgore added: "I heard the stories and narrative about DeVante. But now he's showcasing what he truly can do as a player this season."

Parker is trying to look forward, not back. He is aiming for a long-term extension with Miami and would like to stay beyond his current deal, which expires in 2020.

"I want to be here. I'm glad they want me to be here," Parker said. "I'm glad it's all working out. Things change."