For Cowboys linebacker and top draft pick, Micah Parsons, it’s probably all business as usual. As a football player, he’s just doing what he does every offseason. Prepare your body and your mind for the upcoming season. Granted jumping up to the pro level is a different thing, and learning a new defense is a challenge, but in general Parsons is likely just approaching it as always.
For Cowboys fans and media, it’s a different story. There are layers of pressure coming down on Parsons and for him to be considered a success, he’ll have to break through them all.
There’s the pressure that comes from being the Cowboys top draft pick. Any player taken in the first round has to succeed, and succeed at a high level, not to be considered a bust. Then there is the fact he’s a top 15 pick, an added level of “can’t-miss” pressure. Taken that high in the draft implies that he is a player who will be a cornerstone.
Another layer of pressure is the fact that Parsons is an off-the-ball linebacker, and that’s a position that is just not highly valued in today’s NFL. It’s lumped in with positions like safety, guard, running back and tight end where you generally don’t use premium resources to obtain a player. To break through that, an off-the-ball linebacker taken where Parsons was taken needs to be a real game-changer to be seen as worth it.
All of that pressure, everything mentioned above is league wide and applies to the NFL as a whole. But Parsons is also facing some Cowboys-centric pressure. One is the fact that he’s not Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn. Most fans and much of the media seemed invested in getting one of those top two cornerbacks in the first round. Instead, getting an off-the-ball linebacker felt like a big letdown. Parsons will need to change those opinions.
Then there is the Cowboys recent penchant for spending draft picks and handing out big contracts to off-the-ball linebackers. Contrary to what most of the league does which is find those guys in later rounds or on bargain deals in free agency, the Cowboys have invested a lot in the linebacker corps. Bill Barnwell sums it up thusly:
What went wrong: Dallas went back to the well at linebacker, as it declined the fifth-year option for Leighton Vander Esch and used its first-round pick on Micah Parsons. There’s a chance that both Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are off the roster in 2022, but after adding Parsons and converting safety Keanu Neal to linebacker, the Cowboys have invested too much over the last few years at this position. Most teams see linebacker as a position to fill in last once they’ve solved their problems up front and in the secondary; the Cowboys still have those problems and seem set to try and build from the middle out.
There’s a lot to unpack there. There is the disappointment of Cowboys fans over the once-bright future of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch suddenly having dimmed. On top of that, the Cowboys handed Smith a huge contract, taking up money that could have gone to more important positions. Additionally, the Cowboys didn’t pick up Vander Esch’s fifth-year option, a tacit admission that the first-round pick is failing. Not only did the Cowboys go agaisnt the grain by spending these resources on the postion, it looks like they didn’t do it successfully.
Parsons is wading into all that mess, and will need to soar above it all for everyone to get on board with his pick. He’ll need to be more than just a decent tackler. He’ll need to become a three-down linebacker, able to excel in coverage and not be a liability. He’ll need to create turnovers either from dislodging the ball from running backs or adding an interception or two. He’ll need to show he is adept at blitzing the quarterback and creating disruption in the backfield.
Barnwell also suggests the Cowboys could have gone in a different direction in the draft.
What they could have done differently: Traded down again from No. 12. The Cowboys picked up a third-round pick from the Eagles when they moved down two spots as part of the DeVonta Smith deal, but the Jets then roared up from No. 23 to No. 14 to take Alijah Vera-Tucker. Swapping a fourth-rounder for two third-rounders would have been nice, especially for a Cowboys team that is going to need draft picks to fill out the depth on their roster given the contracts on offense.
It’s hard to know if the Cowboys could have gotten a deal worth the value in the draft to trade back again. It was certainly an idea that was brought up while the draft was happening, but what actually went on behind the scenes is not always clear.
Whatever the case, Micah Parsons needs to do a lot for his pick to be fully accepted by fans and media alike. No pressure, rookie.