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What the Cowboys are trying to teach Micah Parsons to make him an all-round linebacker

The Cowboys first-round pick is still trying to master a few things before the season starts.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys OTA Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Micah Parsons wasn’t an instant sensation for the Cowboys faithful when he was selected with the 12th overall pick in the 2021 Draft. It felt like that anything other than a cornerback, specifically Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn, wouldn’t do (unless Kyle Pitts somehow fell). When hearts were broken after Surtain and Horn were off the board, the Cowboys traded back and ended up taking Parsons. That was met with decidedly mixed reactions.

Now that we’re a couple of months away from the draft, the emotion of the event is over and we can take a cold sober look at Parsons and his game. A few things stand out. One is that many analysts called Parsons the best defensive player in the draft. The other is that Parsons is obscenely gifted athletically.

Those athletic gifts naturally lend themselves to the ability to do things like track down a ball carrier from sideline to sideline, and to rush the passer. Obviously those things require technique, too, but they are skills that Parsons has shown at a high level in college. But there are other aspects to being an off-the-ball linebacker in the NFL. No college player comes out as a complete package, and there are aspects of the game Parsons will need to master if he wants to be a starter and a three-down player for the Cowboys.

In a recent article for ESPN, they evaluated the progress of each first-round pick so far this offseason. Todd Archer did the honors for the Cowboys section and had this to say about Parsons.

If Parsons is a Week 1 starter, the Cowboys will make him earn it. By the way he performed in the OTAs and minicamps, he will push for a lot of playing time wherever the Cowboys use him. He has played middle linebacker and has rushed the passer from the outside. He might have been something of a surprise in coverage.

“The pass-rushing part of him, he has really picked up where he left off,” coordinator Dan Quinn said. “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.”

The Dan Quinn quote tracks with much we’ve heard about Parsons. In college, when going downhill and getting after running backs or quarterbacks, he was massively disruptive and was a playmaker. Even so, there was a feeling that he was a little under-experienced as a linebacker, having been a defensive lineman before college, and he opted out of the 2020 season.

There where questions about his ability to play in coverage as an off-the-ball linebacker and execute the other nuances of the game. It wasn’t necessarily that he couldn’t do these things, his intelligence and football IQ was mentioned in quite a few scouting reports, but that he needed to learn them and experience them to reach his full potential. This line from the Quinn quote - Now we are working on behind the ball things: Man to man, playing zone, blitzing from off the ball - hits it right on the head.

For Parsons to reach his full potential, and justify using such a high draft pick on a player at his position, he will have to become a three-down linebacker who can play going both forward and backward. There is no doubt he has the physical gifts and the mental acuity to master it, he just needs the coaching and experience.

The Cowboys are working on that.