After the two players the Dallas Cowboys were most connected to prior to the draft, Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II, went off the board to the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, respectively, Dallas traded down two spots with the Eagles. A little bit later, the Cowboys used the 12th overall pick on Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons.
This pick will be extremely polarizing. Opinions on Parsons range from him being the best defensive player in the draft to being a possible misfire. There are analysts who didn’t have Parsons as the top linebacker in this class, while others had him as a top eight prospect.
Parsons was one of the many players who opted out of this past season, leaving him with just two years as a starter at Penn State. That’s been a concern for some, especially since Parsons, a former five-star defensive end recruit, had never played linebacker until college.
Parsons played extremely well in his brief time with the Nittany Lions. In his first season, he tallied 82 tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. Penn State sought to utilize his pass rushing background more in 2019, and it resulted in Parsons registering 109 tackles for loss, 14 tackles for loss, and five sacks in addition to knocking down five passes, forcing four fumbles, and recovering one. It earned him a consensus All-American selection at the end of the year.
Parsons’ player profile starts and ends with his athleticism. At 6’3” and 245 pounds, Parsons moves much faster than you’d expect. He ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, turning plenty of heads in the process. He has athleticism to spare, but he is still learning how to play linebacker.
To that end, Parsons had plenty of times at Penn State where he struggled to properly diagnose the play, especially in pass coverage. Parsons had never played in that role in high school, and it showed. He showed genuine improvement from year-to-year in zone coverage, but asking Parsons to cover someone in man coverage was a liability. He’s incredibly raw, especially in pass coverage, so the Cowboys taking him this high is quite risky. He will need to be coached up in some of the finer points of linebacker play, especially in pass coverage.
It also seems like an odd fit for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s scheme. Traditionally, Quinn has preferred slimmer linebackers who excel in pass coverage, but Parsons is a bit thicker (although he doesn’t lack in speed), and is a better fit in a blitz-heavy scheme; Quinn rarely blitzes, preferring to utilize his linebackers in coverage.
Of course, the Parsons pick says just as much about the Cowboys’ thoughts on his potential as it does about their thoughts on Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch’s fifth-year option is pending, and Stephen Jones has already said they’d evaluate that decision after the draft. While the Cowboys ended up not cutting Smith before his contract became fully guaranteed earlier this year, the buzz around that possibility, as well as this pick, suggests Dallas isn’t committed to him either.
There’s also a red flag about Parsons’ off-the-field demeanor. He was named as a defendant in a hazing lawsuit levied by a former Penn State player, which led to several draft experts questioning his personality and maturity. On the flip side, Parsons was considered a vocal leader for the Nittany Lions defense.
The Cowboys must have felt good about what they learned during the pre-draft process. And the silver lining is that they added a third-round pick to move down just two spots and take the guy they probably would have taken anyway had they stayed at 10. As for Parsons himself, he’ll have to earn his high draft position for an off-ball linebacker, and the only way to do that going forward is with his play.