It's extremely rare these days for a linebacker to be a transformational player for a defense. It's even rarer when that linebacker is a rookie. But that's exactly what has happened in Dallas, where Cowboys rookie Micah Parsons has totally changed almost everything about the way the team's defense works.
It helps that Parsons is, well, not exactly a normal linebacker. There aren't many players at any position who run the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds, and there are even fewer who do it at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. Parsons also didn't even really play linebacker until he got to college. Before that, he was an edge rusher. And that skill set has been put to excellent use by Dan Quinn and Co. throughout this season.
In two seasons at Penn State (Parsons was a COVID-19 opt-out for his junior season), Parsons played only 135 snaps as a defensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus. By Week 8 of his rookie year, he'd already lined up along the defensive line more often as a Cowboy than he did as a Nittany Lion. After Demarcus Lawrence fractured his foot during a Week 2 practice, Parsons shifted to the edge full time for the next two games -- and excelled in the role, picking up 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, and five quarterback hits.
He's been bouncing back and forth between the two spots ever since, and has essentially split his time 60-40 between lining up as a traditional off-ball linebacker and on the edge. (He shifted to the edge for two more full games, when Randy Gregory joined Lawrence on the sideline.) Even in the games where he plays primarily at linebacker, Quinn has made sure to get him opportunities on the edge as well. There have only been two games all season where he got fewer than 10 snaps as an edge player.
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The reason why the Cowboys keep using Parsons not just as a regular linebacker, but also a defensive lineman, is quite obvious: he's really freaking good at it. He is already one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. Not just among rookies. Among all players. His 12 sacks rank seventh in the NFL at the moment, but that undersells the degree to which he's excelled as a pass-rusher, since he's done it so much less often than the NFL's other premiere sack artists. The six players with more sacks than Parsons have all had between 60 and 161 more opportunities than him to rush the passer this season.
On a per-pass-rush-snap basis, nobody in the league has more consistently gotten pressure than Parsons. He's generated a sack, hit, or hurry on 22.7% of his pass-rush snaps, according to TruMedia. That's first in the NFL by an extremely wide margin. Second-place Maxx Crosby has pressured the opposing quarterback on 16.4% of his pass-rush snaps. The distance between Parsons and second place is equivalent to the distance between second place and Cameron Heyward in 64th place (10%).
And it's not just this year where Parsons laps the field. He's the only player to generate pressure on more than 20% of his pass-rush snaps at any time in the last five seasons. Among players who rushed the passer at least 200 times in a given season, only 2018 Jerry Hughes and 2018 Aaron Donald even reached 18%. Again, Parsons is up at nearly 23%. As a rookie. After not playing at all last season, and while splitting time between linebacker and a position he hasn't played since high school. It's outrageous.
It's not all him, of course. The Cowboys do an excellent job of putting him in position to succeed. They'll have him rush as a stand-up linebacker, for example, and they have ways of making sure he gets matched up with a guard. Parsons simply has too much speed and agility for these guys to be able to deal with him -- even if they're All-Pros like Washington's Brandon Scherff.
He can win with a quick inside move, by powering through the outside shoulder, with a DeMarcus Ware-esque rip and club move, or even by splitting a double-team. And that's just when he rushes over the guard. Line him up as an edge, and he'll show freaky bend around the corner, or despite his relative lack of size, a standard bull rush where he deposits the offensive tackle into the quarterback's lap.
And those are just the standard speed and power moves. Parsons already has a full package of counters, as if he were a 10-year veteran. He's at his best when pushing a tackle up the field and getting him to open his hips, before he quickly jumps back inside and makes his way to the quarterback. Tackles are completely overmatched against someone who can make this type of move, this quickly.
Because he's such a natural pass-rusher, the Cowboys aren't afraid to utilize Parsons on stunts. And not just as the guy they want getting to the quarterback, either. Sometimes he's the pocket-pusher, trying to free space for somebody else, like Gregory. But even when that's his role, he can still end up getting all the way into the backfield. More often, though, the Cowboys will have one of their defensive linemen rush up the field to clear the way for Parsons to loop around into open space. He's got terrific timing on those stunts, knowing that he can't just loop right away. He has to be part of the sell job.
And that's only scheme and skill set stuff. There are plays Parsons makes that he only makes because he is just special. His closing speed, in particular, is just about unmatched in the league right now. The amount of time it takes him to erase the gap between himself and a quarterback almost does not make sense. Plays like the ones in the clip below just should not be possible. And for most players, they aren't.
If he were just a superior athlete, that would make him wildly tough to stop. But he's also a football freak, which allows him to utilize his eyes nearly as well as his arms and legs. Pray for any quarterback who runs a bootleg to Parsons' side of the line, because he will be right there waiting to drive him into the ground. And if he's coming on a blitz, he'll take note of which way the quarterback slides the protection, then hop a gap in the other direction before slicing through the line, so that the running back can't make it there in time to block him.
And even if his blitz gets picked up, sometimes he's just too much of a freak to be stopped.
Parsons' emergence as an elite pass-rush threat allows the Cowboys to get after the quarterback in so many different ways, especially now that Lawrence and Gregory are back in the field. Quinn has been much more creative in his personnel and formation usage than he was during his time as the head coach of the Falcons, and the presence of Parsons is an enormous factor in his ability to do so. The Cowboys couldn't bump Lawrence inside to rush as often over the last few years, because they didn't have two other players capable of getting edge pressure. Now they do, along with a few more guys who can rush from the interior. (The pressure they can now generate also allows their defensive backs to be much more aggressive, which has shown up in Quinn eschewing his typical Cover-3 looks in favor of the Cowboys utilizing man coverage more than almost any other team in the league.)
For a player who is ostensibly a linebacker to add as much value as a pass-rusher, as Parsons already has, is pretty outrageous to begin with. But Parsons is also damn good against the run. He leads the NFL in defeats this season, per Football Outsiders, indicating that he's consistently making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Whether as a linebacker or on the edge, he knows his responsibilities and how to make the offense wrong on a play, even when it should be right.
Parsons' ability to read run plays and fly to the ball has allowed the Cowboys to get away with playing him alongside players like Keanu Neal and Jayron Kearse inside the box, which has helped the team's pass defense. They don't need to play big linebackers who are liabilities in coverage quite as often.
Speaking of coverage ... It might be a linebacker's most important job these days, and it's there where Parsons probably has the most work to do. He didn't have a ton of experience covering in space in college, and he doesn't have much more in the pros. He's been tasked with defending some difficult-to-cover players on occasion (like Rob Gronkowski back in Week 1), and he hasn't always found success. He can be a little late getting up the seam against tight ends and linebackers -- especially on play-action throws. He wants to be aggressive, and opposing teams can use that against him. If he has to bump out into the slot in zone coverage, wide receivers will usually get the better of him. (As expected.) And sometimes he can just get lost.
Despite those flaws, he's actually been quite good in coverage overall. He ranks eighth out of 70 linebackers with 200 or more snaps in coverage in pass yards allowed per coverage snap. That outrageous athleticism is put to excellent use when he's able to showcase his recovery speed on wheel routes, the likes of which your typical linebacker cannot make it down the field in time to cover. But Parsons has made several terrific plays breaking up passes 20-plus yards up the sideline, while also doing fine work closer to the line of scrimmage.
"The lion is always hungry," Parsons told assistant coach George Edwards back in training camp. If his rookie season is any indication, he's going to have a whole lot to eat for a very long time.