The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best defensive players in the league. Since entering the league in 2021, Micah Parsons immediately catapulted himself into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. He finished second in voting in each of the last two seasons, first losing to T.J. Watt in 2021, and then to Nick Bosa this past season.
Parsons is the team’s young phenom who will anchor this defense for years to come. He can run players down, he can sack quarterbacks, and he will snatch the ball from their cold dead hands if they’re not careful. It would not be hard to argue that he is the most dynamic defensive player in the NFL. In fact, he is the only player in NFL history to have at least 25 sacks, 140 tackles, and five forced fumbles over his first two years in the league. That’s rather impressive.
As great as Parsons has been, there is a worry that how he has been used has caused him to wear down as the season progresses. From the moments we saw him gassed out and walking to the sideline to the numerous instances he showed up on the injury report (nursing an ailing knee or playing with a club on his injured hand) it was evident he was getting beat up. And if you didn’t see it with your own eyes, you could see it on the stat sheet as his numbers started to decline in several areas.
First 11 games = 12 sacks
Final 6 games = 1.5 sacks
Sacks aren’t the end-all, be-all for how disruptive he was, but it showed up in other areas as well.
First 11 games = 9 games with at least four tackles
Final 6 games = 1 game with at least four tackles
And you could even say some of his splashiness was no longer soaking the folks sitting in the first row.
First 11 games = 3 games with a forced fumble
Final 6 games = No game with a forced fumble
If you charted all three of these categories, you can see that Parsons’ production started plateauing after his first 11 games. We’ll call this the Parsons Plateau.
At week 11, Parsons almost flatlines in all of those categories and it’s easy to suggest that weekly battles throughout the season take their toll on the Cowboys' young edge rusher. A large part of this is how the Cowboys used him last year compared to his rookie season. His role as an edge rusher expanded tremendously as he logged 738 snaps on the defensive line (81% of his snaps) last year compared to just 374 (43%) in 2021. That’s a lot to ask of a 246-pound outside linebacker as there’s a big difference in squaring up against a 300-pound lineman over and over again versus being a free-roaming linebacker who's getting a running start.
How are the Cowboys going to handle this? Well, there are a number of small little tweaks already going into effect this offseason. First, we heard reports that Parsons was going to bulk up, but he quickly clarified that he doesn’t plan to add too much extra weight.
“I just want to increase my explosiveness, add on weight in the right way, sharpen it up, eating right and just doing anything possible that I can do the right way to be the best player I can be.”
Also, he has been implementing boxing into his regime because, as Parsons put it, he got tired of people punching him in the face. Being stronger and learning better hand-fighting skills will help him on the edge, but another thing that would help is just giving him a little more rest.
When Parsons played in less than 80% of the snaps, the Cowboys were 8-1 with the only loss coming in the meaningless finale game against Washington. But, when he played at least 90% of the snaps, the Cowboys were 1-3. In games where he was overused, the Cowboys struggled, or, to put it another way, when the Cowboys struggled, Parsons was asked to do more. Maybe a little help on the offensive side of the ball might help preserve his health as well.
Edge-rushing reserves like Dante Fowler and rising star Sam Williams should help spell Parsons a bit, and trading for a proven receiving weapon in Brandin Cooks will help the offense. Parsons is a star and we all want to see him on the field as much as possible, but just like their biggest offensive asset, Dak Prescott, they don’t want to overextend him by asking him to do too much.