The Dallas Cowboys’ impressive October gave way to an underwhelming November, backing up a month of elite play with four games in which they often looked outcoached, uninspired, and, to be sure, undermanned. They’ve been hit by COVID harder than any other team in the NFL. They’ve signaled they have no concrete idea of what they want to do on the offensive line. Their quarterback has been a bit inconsistent since returning from injury.
Some of this is to be expected, and not just because of the bad luck on the COVID and injury fronts. Remember, this was the 10th-youngest roster in the NFL at the season’s start, with only six position players over the age of 30 (one of whom, DeMarcus Lawrence, has missed all but one game this year). Which is why it makes absolutely no sense that their most bankable player is the youngest regular contributor on the team. In the midst of this topsy-turvy campaign, Micah Parsons has been the Cowboys’ best player this season — as a 22-year-old rookie who didn’t even play football last season, after opting out of his junior year at Penn State.
We need to take a step back and appreciate this. And, at least in my case, admit how wrong I was about how this would play out (at least I’m in good company here at StrongSide). The media and fanbase focused on Dallas coming out of the NFL Draft’s first round with a blue-chip cornerback, which made Parsons seem positionally redundant, an overvalued consolation prize. I was not a fan of this pick at all, and I was annoyingly emphatic about it.
My reasons for pessimism had very little to do with the skills Parsons put on tape at Penn State. The secondary was in bad shape even if you expected some degree of second-season jump from Trevon Diggs. Dallas already had two linebackers, one highly paid and the other highly drafted, and I found it hard to believe they would ignore the names on Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch’s jerseys and deploy the best talent. Parsons also faced some very serious hazing and sexual assault accusations while in college. For a team considering itself in “win now” mode, a gamble on a player with possible maturity and behavioral issues was a risk I was not willing to take. (As an aside: I do not mean to trivialize those allegations by lumping them in with football-related matters. These are simply the range of concerns teams must evaluate when selecting players.)
From an on-the-field standpoint, my biggest concern was that I simply did not buy what the Cowboys when it came to how Parsons would be used. Here’s Mike McCarthy on draft night:
“I think, clearly, when you watch him play, he’s a multi-positional player. He can play on-the-ball as a linebacker, his natural pass rush skills … that’s something we talked about over the last 10 days [leading up to the draft]. His ability to play off-the-ball. He’s an impact rusher, inside and outside. He can play in the bubble, he can play behind the three-technique. So he gives us a lot of flexibility to line up with the other linebackers. He’s a dynamic, pressure player, and he’ll definitely make an impact for us on defense.”
Perhaps I would have bought in had this pick been made heading into Dan Quinn’s third year in Dallas rather than his first. We’re still scarred by Rod Marinelli pounding the table for Taco Charlton over T.J. Watt in 2017 because Watt “wasn’t a scheme fit.” But Jerry and Stephen Jones are still on the scene, as is VP of player personnel Will McClay. This same front office tried to make Byron Jones a multi-positional defender during this time in Dallas, and that experiment failed.
Plus, Parsons was hardly used as a pass rusher at Penn State. Per Pro Football Focus, he rushed the passer just 135 times in his two years as a Nittany Lion (41 in 2018, 94 in 2019). For context, the first true edge rusher off the board in the 2021 draft, Jaelan Phillips, had 286 pass rush snaps in his junior season at Miami. Yes, Parsons was a defensive end in high school; he was also a running back. It’s high school football!
So, to recap, we were expected to believe that: Dallas would get Parsons on the field even if it meant less playing time for Vander Esch and Smith, had properly identified he was capable of being an impact rusher in the NFL despite having hardly done that in college, would ultimately deploy him in variations that maximize his skill set, and had done their due diligence that he was a player that could mentally and emotionally handle these intense demands as a rookie.
Welp. Eleven games into his rookie season, that has all happened. All of it.
The Cowboys released Smith. Vander Esch’s snaps have fallen by roughly five per game, and that number would likely be lower if Parsons wasn’t being asked to line up at defensive end/outside linebacker so often due to injuries up front.
Seriously, just look at this. Here is Parsons week-by-week positional breakdown, per PFF:
They made him a full-time defensive end in the second game of his career after Lawrence went out with injury. Keanu Neal is out? Back to inside linebacker. Dorance Armstrong is out? Back outside. Armstrong is back? Back inside. Randy Gregory is out? Back outside.
Even if his ascendance to a true defensive chess piece has been born out of necessity, Dallas and Dan Quinn still deserve a ton of respect for trusting he could handle it and for coaching him well enough to do so. They are ensuring that every week the player who can most effectively wreck the opponent’s game plan is in a position to do just that.
— NFL (@NFL) November 26, 2021
Among 124 qualified players by snaps rushing the passer (roughly the top four rushers on each team), Parsons ranks first in PFF’s “pass rushing productivity” metric. PRP is simply a per-snap measurement of how often a player is generating a pressure, with a heavier weight given to plays that actually end with a sack. After Parsons, the list is Myles Garrett, Matthew Judon, and Maxx Crosby. He ranks above the elite of the elite at something that wasn’t really supposed to be his job. These are seasoned veterans who have mastered the art and technique of consistently beating NFL offensive linemen. Those players have posted higher raw pressure numbers because they have 100 to 150 more snaps in that spot. But many weeks, when Parsons isn’t rushing the QB, he has to go get back into the thick of things in the middle, which has to be extremely taxing both mentally and physically.
As for fellow rookies, there is no competition. Despite not being a full-time rusher, he leads in every pass-rushing category.
Micah Parsons ranks among rookies this season
Sacks 9 Most
Tackles for Loss 15 Most
Pressures 44 Most
QB Hits 23 Most pic.twitter.com/ApsZyViN4z
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) November 29, 2021
Every week, I find myself trying to stave off the hyperbole. And yet, every week, I find myself wondering “Has there ever been anything like this guy?” I looked at the last 10 seasons of PFF’s data to attempt to answer that question. Since 2011, 216 rookies have registered as many pass-rush snaps as Parsons. Of those 216, based on pass-rush productivity, he ranks … first. This is a list almost entirely made up of edge-rushing linebackers and defensive ends or interior defenders. Parsons has still played slightly more snaps inside than out, so he is still categorized as a linebacker. And while Dallas does rush him from the inside occasionally, the bulk of his pass-rush snaps have come in situations when he is on the edge. He is one of five categorized linebackers on this list at all. So five rookie “linebackers” over the past decade have been asked to rush the passer as much as Parsons, and no other rookie (no matter his position) has been as productive when doing so.
Why stop there? PFF has 20 years of pressure data, so I kept going. In the past 20 seasons, 275 rookies have clocked as many pass-rush snaps as Parsons has this season. Per PRP, again, he ranks … first. The next rookie seasons on that list from 2001-2021 were, in order, Aldon Smith, Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, Carl Lawson, and Von Miller. Combined number of Pro Bowls so far: 13. There are only six players categorized as linebackers when we use the 20-year sample.
Through 11 games, Micah Parsons is having one of the most productive (and definitely the most efficient) rookie seasons as a pass rusher of the past 20 years. He has really only turned in one poor performance this season, on the road against the Patriots. He responded by putting in extra work and playing well against the Vikings.
Micah Parsons didn’t like how he played vs Patriots, so he started getting to work earlier
Dan Quinn: “I turned around and saw him walking in next to me. I said, ‘What do we got going on here?’ He said, ‘I’m changing some things.’
“It’s no surprise he played well (last night).”
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) November 2, 2021
Parsons is not only the runaway favorite for defensive rookie of the year — he should win the award even if he doesn’t play another snap. I think he should be getting heavier consideration for overall defensive MVP. His raw counting stats aren’t as high as the DPOY favorites, because, you know, he’s busy playing another position. But I think that makes what he’s accomplished that much more impressive. It’s easy to make the case that no player has more demonstratively impacted and improved a team’s defense than Parsons has in Dallas this season.
Once Lawrence and Gregory are back, Dallas will have one of the most lethal pass rush attacks in the NFL. Parsons will likely primarily play inside at that point, where he can still be used as a blitzer situationally. But he’ll still sometimes line up as the widest interior defender, where he will be meeting Lawrence or Gregory or both at the quarterback.
There isn’t much in the way of positive Cowboys news right now. Maybe this season will right itself; maybe it won’t. If Dallas makes a run this year, Parsons will play an indispensable role. If they don’t, they can bank on him being the cornerstone of their defense for years to come. But however long this skid lasts, Cowboys fans can rejoice in the fact that the front office and coaching staff nailed this one. There has never been another player quite like Micah Parsons.