Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs usher in new era of Dallas Cowboys defense

Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs usher in a new era of Cowboys defense. Although the defense is still struggling, they're finally making plays.

For the first time since 2018, the Dallas Cowboys should feel they have foundational pieces to build around on the defensive side of the ball. Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs appear to be the real deal. But we felt similarly when Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith were splashing like crazy in a top-10 Cowboys defense. So, what makes Parsons and Diggs the real deal when LVE and Smith were a flash in the pan?

Parsons has “best NFL defender” potential

This is still the Cowboys, so it’d be prudent to take things slow. We’ve seen our fair share of horse hockey when it comes to young talented defenders. For example, Byron Jones played safety for the first three years of his career before becoming one of the most consistent cover corners in the league. The Cowboys recently had Reggie Robinson go through the same conversion.

Parsons could be in a similar boat — except for him, it doesn’t matter what position he ends up playing, at least from what we’ve seen two weeks into his NFL career.

First, this young man is simply more athletic than anybody else on the field. At the NFL level, there are only a few players that have his sort of freakish ability. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Parsons is arguably the fastest player on the defense.

He’s also the most violent. The way Parsons engages blocks and arrives at a tackle is different, especially for a young defender who didn’t even play football in 2020. Despite all the outstanding flashes so far, it’s still too early to know what he should be in the NFL.

Micah Parsons, the pass rusher

Parsons already has a box of pass-rush moves in his garage that he’s ready to show when he’s given the opportunity. He can win both inside and out with pure, unadulterated explosion or through his hands and rush plan. He had 8 pressures in his first game playing as a more traditional pass rusher, and he has the highest pressure rate in the NFL.

But I still don’t believe that deploying Parsons as a pure pass rusher is the best way to utilize him. There is a reason Penn State flipped him to linebacker. I’m unaware of the reason, but it probably has something to do with his 31-1/2 inch arm length, which is the 19th percentile for outside linebackers.

Length is important. It’s not everything as a pass rusher, and it’s not the reason he struggled against Rashawn Slater early on while Bradlee Anae (32-1/8) beat the Chargers’ left tackle twice. Parsons simply hasn’t done it with the consistency of down-to-down rushers because he also has to play linebacker.

Micah Parsons, the linebacker

There is really nothing not to like about his upside as a linebacker. He wasn’t asked to do much in coverage while at Penn State, and for some reason, far too many of us just decided he couldn’t do it simply because the Nittany Lions didn’t ask him to do it.

There is nothing Parsons can’t do from the position. He can align up and down the defensive line and at the second level to read, react, and fly to the football. But as an off-the-ball linebacker, it also means he blitzes from the interior.

I think that’s where Parsons could provide the most value. His explosiveness mixes perfectly with his hand usage and natural ability to reduce his service areas and create acute rush angles through contact.

While he’s still getting acclimated to the NFL, Parsons can probably be used situationally week to week. However, if he’s going to become the most dominant defender in football, he’ll need a more defined role. Playing off the ball and sliding down to rush from the edge on passing downs seems like an ideal fit.

See, Parsons will play far fewer snaps if you throw him on the line and tell him to go get the quarterback. He can conserve more energy playing linebacker. And if I’ve noticed one thing over the first two weeks of the season, it’s that the Dallas Cowboys need this young man on the field defensively, in one way or another.

Trevon Diggs has changed the culture on defense

Two kinds of players take the ball away on defense. There are ball magnets and ball hawks. A ball magnet gets lucky — the ball magically finds them. Ball hawks go out and attack the football.

Diggs seems to be one of the few that does both. He’s weaponized on the back end. Diggs now has 5 interceptions in just 14 career games, and he has 17 passes defensed to go along with it. He’s a menace when the ball is in his court, and he’s ready to give the Dikembe Mutombo finger wag all day long. Between him and Parsons, the Cowboys have two playmakers that they haven’t had in a long time.

But Diggs is also a 6’2″, 210-pound cornerback who I always thought would be a weekly boom or bust depending on the matchup. So far in 2021, he’s proving me emphatically wrong.

The Mike Evans matchup wasn’t too surprising. Sure, allowing just a single catch to Evans was impressive, but that’s the kind of individual matchup in which I expect Diggs to excel. Week 2 against the Chargers was the true test, and he showed Cowboys fans something they haven’t seen in a long time on defense.

He proved he’s a game-wrecker.

The first thing I thought of on this play was Stephon Gilmore’s interception of Dak Prescott in 2019 as he covered Amari Cooper in poor conditions. Watching Diggs accelerate to delete the throwing window here was special.

He’s still going to lose reps. That’s pass defense in the NFL. However, if Diggs can play against shiftier route runners with more consistency than I originally anticipated, the Cowboys are looking at a foundational piece to build around in the secondary.

Now they just need to start stacking blocks.

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