Parnell Motley Will Begin NFL Career as an Undrafted Free Agent

Parnell Motley had an elite senior year, but NFL teams didn't use a draft pick on him.
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When Oklahoma cornerback Parnell Motley wasn’t invited to the NFL Combine, there was a period of shock, of anger, of frustration.

But soon enough, Motley got over it and decided he was going to control what he could control.

After a stellar performance at OU’s Pro Day, Motley clarified his outlook moving forward.

“I want to play for the NFL, not the NFL Combine,” Motley said.

But after Saturday’s NFL Draft ended without Motley being selected, he will have to take whatever opportunities arise as an undrafted free agent.

Motley had an elite senior year, so it’s hard to comprehend his plunge from everyone’s draft board. His pro day results were not spectacular, but they were good — and should have been good enough to get him drafted. Maybe he had to come from so far back in his career that many scouts didn’t trust his senior tape. Or maybe his selfish ejection from the Sooners’ loss at Kansas State raised a red flag. Or maybe he didn’t do well in personal interviews.

“He’s had a lot of ups and downs throughout his career,” coach Lincoln Riley said this week, “and to have the kind of year he had – and he didn’t do that against a bunch of average players. I mean, each week, we’re getting ready to see the quality of Big 12 receivers that are gonna go off the board early in this NFL Draft, and then to do what he did to (LSU's Ja’Marr) Chase in the bowl game, I thought it was a heck of a battle to watch. I mean, that was two pretty good football players going at it, and Parnell more than held his own.

“So yeah, I’m proud of him, man. I am. … And you know, not only the years here, but when you look back at what kind of Parnell came from, some tough things that have happened in his life, things that have not went his way, for him to be in the position he’s in right now, first and foremost you’re happy for the kid and proud that we were able to help him have the kind of year that he did.”

Coming out of Washington, D.C., Motley was a consensus 3-star prospect who chose the Sooners over offers from Clemson, LSU, Michigan and Michigan State.

He played mostly special teams as a true freshman, but then as a sophomore permanently inserted himself into the conversation as a starter at cornerback.

In four years at Oklahoma, Motley finished his career ranked fifth in school history with 33 passes defensed.

He earned first-team All-Big 12 honors in 2019, when he recorded 41 tackles, a team-best 13 PBUs and a team-leading five forced fumbles (second nationally) to go with a fumble recovery.

As a junior, Motley was named All-Big 12 honorable mention, when he led the Sooners with three interceptions and 11 passes broken up.

In 2017, Motley made 13 starts and led the Sooners with nine PBUs and two interceptions, and ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles.

But it was 2017 where Motley experienced his career low — being benched during a shootout at Oklahoma State in favor of true freshman Tre Norwood.

Motley had shown promise before then, but he also found himself frequently underwater in coverage.

A decade of Sooner cornerbacks had experienced similar ups and downs early in their career, and many never made it back into the starting lineup.

But Motley not only made it back, he grew his game and became the Sooners’ best cover corner since perhaps Zack Sanchez.

In 2019, every receiver Motley drew in primary coverage — from Texas Tech’s T.J. Vasher to Texas’ Collin Johnson to Baylor’s Denzel Mims (twice) to TCU’s Jalen Reagor to Chase (last year's Biletnikoff Award winner) — finished below his season average.

“The best player on the Sooners’ defense wasn’t their star linebacker (Kenneth Murray) nor even their stout defensive tackle (Neville Gallimore),” Pro Football Focus’ Cam Mellor wrote. “Rather, it was their lockdown cornerback in Motley, who allowed just 43.4 percent of the passes thrown his way to be caught. He was heavily tested, seeing 53 targets come his way, and although he didn’t have the interception totals of other cornerbacks this year, he truly did limit big plays. In fact, the longest reception Motley allowed this year was a mere 37 yards, and he gave up only two other receptions longer than 20 yards. He was routinely tasked with following the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, and he locked them down in the process.”

Motley was better under Alex Grinch and Roy Manning — more confident, more consistent, certainly more reliable — than he was under Mike Stoops and Kerry Cooks. That growth was not unexpected, Riley said in October.

“We challenged [Motley] pretty heavily after last year,” Riley said. “It was good timing with coach Manning coming in (and) coach Grinch. He had a chance to wipe the slate clean like everyone else. I think the biggest thing for him has been maturity and consistency both on and off the field.

“He’s grown up. Like a lot of guys, you get to that senior year and all of a sudden, those reps are not infinite anymore. You start thinking this thing is over pretty quick. It’s been kind of a perfect storm for him. All the changes, him being a senior. He deserves the most credit because he’s handled it the right way and we need him to keep doing that.”

After his Pro Day on March 10, Motley said a change in coaching staff made a big difference in his performance.

“The last coaches kind of like, they already knew me,” he said, “and these new coaches came in, kind of like a new life, new opportunity.

“It most certainly applies to the Grinch effect. It just shows what he can do in a year. Shoutout to coach Grinch to getting us better and putting us in the best position possible.”

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