By all accounts, the Cowboys entered the 2021 NFL Draft with every intention of drafting a cornerback - whether he be named Jaycee Horn or Patrick Surtain II - with the tenth overall pick. When Horn came off the board at eight and Surtain immediately followed him, Dallas traded back two spots and selected Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons.
The pick was initially criticized for a number of reasons, but Parsons quickly proved the doubters (myself included) very wrong. Parsons went on to have one of the greatest rookie seasons of any defender, easily winning Defensive Rookie of the Year and tying Aaron Donald for second-most votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
Parsons’ rookie year was nothing short of extraordinary, and he looked like anything but a rookie. But is there room to improve? And what can the Cowboys expect to see from him in 2022?
What He’s Done
Here’s a look at Parsons’ stat line from his rookie year:
84 tackles | 20 tackles for loss | 13 sacks | 47 pressures | 30 QB hits | 3 forced fumbles
The stats in bold indicate areas where Parsons led the team. That on its own is bonkers, but let’s consider how Parsons stacked up against the rest of the league. Parsons was third in tackles for loss, sixth in sacks, fourth in pressures, and fourth in QB hits. In the entire NFL.
The most mind-boggling part of that is the pressures total. Parsons had the fourth-most pressures of anyone in the NFL while playing only a fraction of the pass rush snaps that his contemporaries did. The three players who surpassed Parsons in pressures were Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, and TJ Watt, all of whom were rushing the passer on just about every dropback.
Parsons, on the other hand, was tasked with falling back into coverage significantly more often than those three, and the majority of the players immediately behind him in pressures. This means that Parsons was winning his pass rushing reps at a ridiculously high rate. Further underscoring that fact is Parsons’ pass rush win rate from 2021:
Parsons' win rate at edge was *very slightly* ahead of Garrett, but Parsons didn't qualify there— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) January 10, 2022
Put another way, Parsons didn’t have enough true pass rushing reps to qualify among full-time edge rushers like Garrett, Watt, and Bosa and he still recorded a higher pass rush win rate than any of them when he was rushing the passer. Not only that, but Parsons had the highest pass rush win rate of any defender as a rookie.
Parsons also excelled in his other roles too. He was a stout run defender, evidenced by his gaudy tackles for loss totals, and performed well in coverage despite having struggled in that area in college. In fact, Parsons allowed completions on just 61.1% of his targets and quarterbacks had an average 71.5 passer rating when throwing his way. Both of those were top marks among all Dallas linebackers.
It’s hard to overstate just how great Parsons was in 2021, and the term “do-it-all” applied quite literally. Parsons lined up at every spot on the field at one point or another and excelled throughout the year. There’s a reason people began to compare Parsons to Lawrence Taylor about halfway through the year.
What He Can Do
Can Parsons get better? It’s a legitimate question to ask after such a dominant first year. The answer is probably yes, but there isn’t an obvious area he needs to improve upon. Continuity will be the biggest challenge for Parsons entering 2022; can he keep dominating now that offenses will be more focused on stopping him?
One area that could see some improvement is conditioning, which seems like an absurd statement on its face when you look at Parsons. But in 10 of Parsons’ 16 regular season games played, he failed to play at least 90% of the defensive snaps. Granted, four of those instances came in blowouts when all the starters got to sit early, but we’re nitpicking here anyway. A player like Parsons should be on the field as much as possible, so if he can find a way to do that more consistently then he should get even better.
Another area for Parsons to improve is his pass coverage. That’s not to say that Parsons wasn’t good in that area, but it’s definitely the most underdeveloped part of his game so far. With Parsons’ speed, length, and vision, he has the potential to become a ballhawk when dropping into coverage. Frankly, when watching his play in 2021, it’s shocking to think that he didn’t record a single interception.
Again, we’re nitpicking here, because interceptions don’t happen that often for linebackers and especially not when they’re rushing the passer as much as Parsons does. But if the conversation is about ways Parsons can become even better than his spectacular rookie campaign, then becoming the Trevon Diggs of linebackers is certainly one way to go about that.
In short, Parsons is coming off a sensational rookie year. Smart money is on a slight regression towards the mean, but smart money didn’t have him Parsons performing the way he did in 2021 in the first place. The standard has been set very high, but Parsons might actually be capable of surpassing it. Even if he doesn’t, maintaining a consistent level of play in 2022 would be a great follow-up performance for Parsons.