Ezekiel Elliott played things perfectly. Perhaps one of the last stable bell-cow running backs, the Ohio State star came into the league and became the focal part of the Dallas offense and the face of the Cowboys franchise. In his first three seasons, Elliott led the league in yards per game, and would have led it in rushing yardage if it weren’t for a six-game suspension that was questionable, at best, when handed down.
Seeing this, he and his financial team made sure to secure the bag, earning at the time the richest contract in NFL history for his position. Elliott also led the NFL in attempts in both 2016 and 2018, and averaged three more carries per contest than he did in those seasons in 2017. The work took it’s toll in the form of diminishing returns, though, as even the most vocal Elliott supporter will admit. I’m him. I’m admitting it. And I’m worried Dan Quinn is making a similar mistake with linebacker Micah Parsons.
Parsons usage his rookie year
When the Cowboys drafted Parsons at No. 12 in 2021, after trading back two spots, many people (again, read: me) had an issue with selecting an off-ball linebacker that high. Off-ball linebackers are important, as is every position, but their value is diminished by the fact that so many good ones are found in the later rounds.
The knocks on Parsons out of Penn State was his perceived inability to cover and the lack of pass-rush evidence. But the Cowboys staff and Quinn knew what they had, that James Franklin was planning to deploy Parsons more as an edge rusher if he hadn’t opted out in the 2020 COVID campaign and then declared for the draft.
In earning the defensive rookie of the year award in 2021 and finishing second in defensive player of the year voting, Parsons has a rookie season for the ages, proving all of those assumptions silly.
He finished with 13 sacks on the season, playing edge just part time.
Beyond sacks in 2021
As we’ve talked about religiously, sacks are nice but they are hardly the way we should be measuring pass-rush performance. Disruption comes in sacks, but also in QB hits that rattle the bones and thought processes, and hurries which move QBs off the spot and eliminate throwing options.
Parsons was elite at that in 2021 as ESPN’s Seth Walder’s Pass Rush and Double Team rates showed us. He had a successful rush almost 30% of the time last season.
Most fans are only used to discussing sacks when it comes to pass rush performance, but there is great value in understanding what happens on the other 97% of pass rushes, the same way there’s great value in understanding what happens on the other 97% of plays where a quarterback doesn’t throw an interception; but I digress.
There was no greater display of how impactful non-sack hurries can be than what Parsons did against Washington in Week 18.
He had five pressures but notched just half a sack. No big deal, but look how his presence directly aided others.
Check out Brian Baldinger’s breakdown which shows on the plays where Parsons pressured rookie QB Sam Howell, it resulted in three sacks and an interception; four splash plays out of five pressures.
More opportunities in 2022
2022 has indeed been more of the same. Walder hasn’t released his season ending numbers for the entire league, but as of a month ago, Parsons’s output was still among the league best. He’s being double-teamed far more often than he was in 2021, up from around 20% of the time to around 27% of the time.
And while Parsons’ PRWR had been down going into December, he actually kicked his win rate up, ending up No. 1 for the second year in a row.
The successful rate stats are witnessed in the volume. Parsons increased his pressure stats from 70 as a rookie to 90 in his second year. That’s 90 times when he forced a negative reaction to the opposing quarterbacks.
But it’s in volume where we also find reasons for concern.
And that’s because not only did Parsons’ pressure numbers rise, but so did the amount of times Quinn asked him to simply be an edge rusher. Perhaps there was a transition as he was entering the league, but Parsons played a much more diverse role in 2021 than he did this past season.
Last year he was a hybrid, spending 57% of his time at linebacker and 43% as a lineman. In 2022, he spent just 19% of his snaps as a linebacker, jumping to 81% as a defensive end.
Fans have watched Parsons fight through multiple ailments they didn’t see in 2021. Although he assuredly had bumps and bruises along the way, Parsons didn’t appear on a single injury report in 2021.
While he started all 17 games yet again, Parsons was clearly hobbled at several points this season. He appeared on the injury report as questionable heading into a contest on five different occasions. And the clear reason for the increase in nicks and bruises, him needing to take breathers more often, is because he’s lining up at edge far more often in 2022.
So is it worth it?
There’s certainly still contact when playing linebacker, and Parsons often blitzed from that spot and took on offensive linemen.
Solely judging things by where he lined up isn’t a tell-all. Using PFF’s numbers, we have an idea of how Parsons was used despite where he lined up. In 2021 he rushed the passer 319 snaps. In 2022, that number increased to 488.
So now the pass-rush stats can be put into more context.
In those additional 169 pass-rush snaps, Parsons notched 20 more QB hurries where he got the opposing thrower off his spot. We witnessed above in the Baldinger video just how impactful those plays could be, so there’s no dismissal here.
But Parsons was a part of 14 sacks in 2021 (12 solo, two half sacks). He was a part of 14 sacks in 2022 (13 solo, a single half sack). Parsons registered a QB hit 14 times in 2021 and 15 times in 2022.
The only tangible benefit shown in Parsons’ taking on almost 170 more collisions against 300-pound lineman and a sizable increase in double teams where it’s multiple people hitting him at once, was 20 hurries.
10 more car accidents a game, several multi-car collisions, one extra hurry.
The wear and tear is tangible and obvious. Are those hurries worth it, or is Quinn doing what Jason Garrett did to Elliott his first three years in the league and putting the type of long-term damage on Parsons’ body that is going to shorten his dominance arc, or career in general?
Is Quinn worried about it? Parsons is absolutely the key (but not only) reason why Quinn is being considered to return to the head coaching level and if he is offered and takes a gig, Parsons will still be in Dallas. I’m not saying Quinn is sacrificing Parsons’ longevity to improve his career standing, but I’m saying that Parsons is a warrior willing to be deployed any way he’s asked.
The Cowboys are going to pay Parsons, just like they did Elliott, and most likely that bag is being secured after Year 3 just like Elliott. But whether it’s Quinn or a different defensive coordinator in 2023, that person needs to be cognizant of not wearing down the talent’s shelf life for minimal returns.