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Cowboys minicamp notebook: Micah Parsons embraces lessons from veterans ... and beats one at chess

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FRISCO, Texas — Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence asked rookie linebacker Micah Parsons during a film session: “You pass rush like that, Rook?”

Parsons confirmed he did.

"[Lawrence] was like, 'All right, tap in with me,' " Parsons recalled Wednesday from mandatory minicamp. "We’re going to work together before (training) camp starts."

The moment of camaraderie — the chance for mentorship and growth — has become par for the Cowboys’ first-round draft selection in the six weeks since he arrived at the Star.

Parsons doesn’t hesitate to ask fourth-year linebacker Leighton Vander Esch if an angle is correct, and he’s not fazed if defensive coordinator Dan Quinn pulls him aside to say: "I know I can pull more out of you."

Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (11) goes through drills.
Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (11) goes through drills.

A player who flashed exceptional athleticism as a consensus All-American at Penn State in 2019 (he opted out of 2020) has immersed himself catching up on the responsibilities for each linebacker spot in Quinn’s scheme. Parsons knows the Cowboys seek the versatility he flashed when exploding for 109 tackles, four forced fumbles, five defensed passes and 14 tackles for loss in his final college season.

"It’s one thing to cover or tackle," said Parsons, who had five sacks as a linebacker in 2019. "But if you can do the trifecta and do all three — cover, tackle, and blitz and get pressure — then that’s what makes you a good ballplayer."

In offseason practices, Parsons has flashed those skills. He nabbed an interception during OTAs that he credits to a range he thinks evaluators "slept on" during the draft process. When blowing up the backfield for a de facto sack at minicamp this week, Parsons praised fellow linemen’s commitment to the blitz.

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Off the field, Parsons is sharpening his anticipation skills by challenging teammates to chess. He beat two rookie classmates this week before scoring face-offs with locker room chess wiz Amari Cooper, whom Parsons managed to outwit Thursday.

"He pulled a fast one today when I wasn’t looking," Cooper told USA TODAY Sports via text, noting he still held a 6-1 edge Thursday afternoon.

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Next up: Pull a fast one against opponents and help teammates do the same, as Parsons prepares for snaps at middle linebacker quarterbacking the defense.

"Guys look to me to know what to do," Parsons said of that responsibility. "If I’m wrong, we all wrong."

Defensive improvement?

The Cowboys’ 2020 defense struggled mightily. Defensive tackles struggled to defend the run, linebackers missed gaps and defensive backs often let up big plays. Who is charged with remedying the season in which the Cowboys allowed 29.5 points and 158.8 rushing yards per game? That would be Quinn, whom Dallas hired as defensive coordinator in January after he had spent five and a half seasons as Falcons head coach. In eight practices installing the schemes, Quinn has begun distinguishing best spots for his talent.

"All of the little roles that you’re starting to see," said Quinn, who hasn’t been afraid to join his players in drills. "Some standards, some things we want to get done, some identity things as a defense, that part’s coming together."

For veterans, that means expanding defensive end Randy Gregory’s role beyond pure pass-rush specialist and maximizing free-agent acquisition Brent Urban’s ability to stay square in the trenches and defend the run. Quinn aims to free up Lawrence to apply his out-of-the-box pass rush approach while positioning Vander Esch to combine his speed and length in coverage.

It’s early; but between regaining the in-person offseason work they sorely missed in 2020 and buying into Quinn’s high-energy teaching style, defenders light up when asked about their new coordinator.

Offseason installation is “much clearer than last year,” cornerback Anthony Brown said. “We’re able to correct our mistakes. We're able to get better as a team and have that bond with each other. So, I definitely feel like it's helping."

Sleek Zeke

Cowboys receiver Cooper, while present at each offseason practice, simply observed. He’s battling an ankle injury that head coach Mike McCarthy said he’s “working through,” as six of the Cowboys’ 14 receivers battled limitations this week. Running back Tony Pollard took snaps at receiver to fill depth, hoping to further develop his perimeter threat alongside his ability to cut inline.

Starting running back Ezekiel Elliott, eager to put behind him a 2020 of fumbles and injury, reported to OTAs looking sleeker than in recent springs. Prescott lauded Elliott’s speed, explosion and smooth cuts.

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"When Zeke’s healthy and Zeke’s doing his thing, he’s the best running back in the league," Prescott touted. "So it’s just exciting to see him in the best shape he’s been in in the NFL. That’s going to be special for us."

Where it all starts

Alongside Prescott’s season-ending ankle fracture, the Cowboys' injury bug hit hardest at offensive line in 2020. Four of five starters missed significant time due to injury. How healthy will they be for 2021? Here’s a breakdown:

Seven-time Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith: Smith played in just two games last season after suiting up for at least 13 each of the previous nine years. A lingering neck issue that spanned his entire career needed attention to counter stingers that trickled into a loss of strength in his left arm.

Now, Smith feels healthier than he has in years — and happier, McCarthy noting he didn’t realize Smith could smile this much. Smith was a limited participant in OTAs, working mostly on strength training to the side of the field but joining some 7-on-11 drills.

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LG Connor Williams: The Cowboys selected Williams in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. He was the only lineman who started every game in 2020 as injuries prompted the cast around him to rotate. Now, he enters a contract year. Will his play this year earn him a second contract in Dallas?

C Tyler Biadasz: Biadasz started four games as a 2020 rookie, collecting 427 offensive snaps’ worth of experience. And yet, Smith says Biadasz’s maturity projects more like a fourth-year player. That grizzled-vet feel is a goal for Biadasz, who told coaches in his January exit interview that he sought to understand Prescott’s intentions so deeply that "we’re like two minds combined at the line of scrimmage."

Biadasz has joined Prescott’s offseason throwing sessions to better master cadence and communication, and he’s changed his body to maximize strength and durability. The center’s top sacrifice: No more French toast breakfasts. "Last year I was a big French toast guy," Biadasz laughed on Thursday. "It’s one of my favorite breakfasts. I don’t eat it anymore."

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Six-time All-Pro RG Zack Martin: Martin missed six games in 2020 due to concussion and a calf injury. When healthy, he was undoubtedly the Cowboys’ best lineman, even filling in as a sleek right tackle when depth was desperate. Martin is expected to enter 2021 fully healthy.

RT La’el Collins: Collins doesn’t boast the Pro Bowl resume of Smith and Martin, but teammates view his ceiling similarly. From 2017-19 he was a steady force starting 47 of 48 games. Hip surgery eliminated his 2020 season. This spring, he became Prescott’s rehabilitation partner. At minicamp this week, he cycled through footwork and resistance drills with Martin and Smith. Right tackle was a glaring weakness in Collins’ absence in 2020. His return, and fitness, will be welcome.

Up next

After a rocky 2020 offseason, McCarthy was satisfied enough with the eight-step 2021 installation to cancel his scheduled practice on Thursday. In place of their final minicamp practice, the Cowboys held a group dynamics program. Veterans were then dismissed for six weeks, rookies scheduled to stay on one more week to fully metabolize their transition. McCarthy reflected on how key that time can be for rookies.

"It gives us a chance to go back to the rookies and say, 'OK, let’s just talk this through,' " McCarthy said. "I can remember it like it was yesterday, Matt Hasselbeck was a young quarterback in Green Bay. I was there his second year and we were going through this same type of setting.

"And he goes, 'You know, can you tell me what this 2 Jet protection means?' That’s the common drop-back protection in the West Coast offense. 'I’m in a room with Brett Favre and Doug Pederson. I never wanted to ask, like, what does the '2' mean? What does the number '3' mean? What’s the word 'jet’ mean?'

"[Next week] gives you that opportunity, whether it’s schematic, whether it’s mental conditioning, the emotional IQ enhancement that was an emphasis in some of our early meetings."

After the rookies are dismissed, the team is expected to start training camp late in the week of July 18. No official plans have been announced, but McCarthy acknowledged the team is likely to return to Oxnard, California.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cowboys notebook: Micah Parsons learning all he can from veterans