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The Cowboys created some raised eyebrows when they selected Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons with the 12th pick in the 2021 NFL draft — not because there was any question about Parsons’ talent, but because the team was already pretty stacked at linebacker with Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and free-agent acquisition Keanu Neal, who had played with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in Atlanta, and can fill a hybrid safety/’backer role. But to categorize Parsons as just a linebacker is to misunderstand his potential effect on a defense, and as the Cowboys also took LSU’s Jabril Cox in the fourth round, it became clear that they wanted more speed at the position, and Parsons has speed for days, as well as the athleticism to become a staple performer in any defense.
In two seasons with the Nittany Lions (2018 and 2019), Parsons lined up along the defensive line on 82 of his 1,225 snaps, per Pro Football Focus, with 1,007 in the box, 121 in the slot, 10 at outside cornerback, and three at free safety. In his NFL debut against the Buccaneers on Thursday night, that versatility was obvious once again — he had 51 snaps, playing 10 on the line, 38 in the box, and three at outside corner. Parsons had three quarterback hurries, five solo tackles, two missed tackles, and in coverage, he allowed five catches on seven targets for 41 yards.
More importantly, Parsons looked comfortable wherever Quinn and his staff lined him up. Whether he was playing inside or outside off-ball linebacker, edge-rusher, inside blitzer, or dropping into coverage, the game didn’t look to big for him at this level, which is pretty impressive for a first-game rookie going up against one of the NFL’s most consistently explosive offense, and the greatest quarterback in football history.
The Buccaneers ran the ball just 14 times for 52 yards in their 31-29 win, so the focus on Parsons’ performance was more about coverage and pressure. In both categories, he had the look of a veteran.
Quinn and his staff had no trouble with the idea of giving Parsons multiple coverage responsibilities, and some fairly complicated concepts at that. The most obvious one -- the one everyone's talking about because there was some confusion as to whether Parsons blew an assignment or not -- was this example of ROBOT coverage, in which Parsons did what he was supposed to do, though it may have looked like something else. https://twitter.com/The_Coach_A/status/1436142974358933515?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1436142974358933515%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Ftouchdownwire.usatoday.com%2F2021%2F09%2F09%2Fmicah-parsons-dallas-cowboys-robot-technique%2F There's this example early in the game, where Parsons takes Rob Gronkowski up the middle in hook responsibility. Against more than half the quarterbacks in the league, this is going to be a win for Parsons, because he closes off the route and forces a really tight window. Unfortunately for Parsons, he was facing that Tom Brady guy, and that Tom Brady guy made an absolutely preposterous throw. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1436667864375873536 Parsons showed his range to break off an assignment and try to give help on Tampa Bay's first touchdown -- a five-yarder from Brady to Chris Godwin. This looks like man coverage in which Parsons is responsible for running back Leonard Fournette in man coverage, and that would be against the run, and and if Fournette broke off in any kind of route. So, while I don't know, I would not attribute this to Parsons -- I think he was trying to help late, and just didn't get there to prevent the touchdown with a timelier drop. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1436672060982501379 Where Parsons looked impressively comfortable was in his ability to combine processing with athleticism. This forced incompletion on a Brady pass to Fournette is one example. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1436674620661321733 Parsons also did a really nice job on this route from running back Giovanni Bernard. Bernard is running a wheel route he's supposed to switch upfield, but Parsons just smothers him, and Bernard is not where Brady expects him to be.
Parsons had three pressures in the game, and he created disruption in all kinds of ways. He does have trouble facing head-up against tackles as an edge defender, but when you're 6-foot-3 and you weigh 240 pounds, that's to be expected. A lot of lighter pass rushers who win in college with raw speed will wash out of the NFL pretty quickly as the best tackles in the business take their speed and just throw it in the garbage. Instead of getting stopped with that, Parsons showed the ability to knife through a double-team with speed and effort. Beating a double team of Buccaneers right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle Tristian Wirfs is no mean feat. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1436667396312420352 And on this pressure near the end of the first half, watch how Parsons sets Wirfs up by moving to Wirfs' outside shoulder, working an expert spin move, and then using his speed to get inside and create the hurry. https://twitter.com/NFL_DougFarrar/status/1436700980108832775 That's veteran stuff. You don't expect this from rookie pass-rushers, especially part-time rookie pass-rushers.
Parsons can be the prime mover in a defense desperate for improvement.
"The pass-rushing part of him, he has really picked up where he left off," Quinn said of Parsons in the preseason. "He really had good speed off the edge. That part of the game is intact. Now we are working on behind the ball things: Man to man, playing zone, blitzing from off the ball. Those are things we can feature and assess." Head coach Mike McCarthy was among those who didn't want to put too much on Parsons' plate too quickly. "You don't want to spread him too thin because he is unique," McCarthy said in August. "You can see that right away out there, particularly with some of the plays he made in space and recovery, you forget about his size and how powerful that he is." Dallas' defense, which was a disorganized disaster in 2020, is still looking for improvement at just about every position. Quinn's ability to get his guys playing fast and free in predominantly single-high looks will help, but every defense needs a force multiplier or two, and so far, Parsons appears to have the traits to become that special player over time. The Cowboys didn't get the Week 1 win they wanted, but Parsons created several small victories of his own.