The question isn’t whether or not Micah Parsons is or will be the best defensive player in the NFL. The question is, when will it be acceptable to admit that there is no more dominant entity in the sport? How long does “best in the game” status take to earn?
For years, Aaron Donald has been considered the best player in the NFL. One season ago, arguably the best defensive tackle ever won his first Super Bowl, the same year T.J. Watt broke the NFL’s single-season sack record. Meanwhile, Myles Garrett’s traditional stat production isn’t up to Watt’s, but his tape is even more impressive.
Micah Parsons torrent pace
There’s a lot of competition for the title. But what Micah Parsons has done through two weeks puts everyone else in the league to shame. He may already be the most dominant force in football, but his youth and inexperience won’t allow the general public to acknowledge that greatness.
But could he get there by Week 18?
Micah Parsons is on a record pace. His 17 sacks in 18 games to start his career are the most ever, surpassing Aldon Smith (16.5) as well as Joey Bosa, Clay Matthews, and Jevon Kearse (16). But what makes that stat even more incredible is that he only had 2.5 sacks in his first seven career games. He’s had 14.5 in the last 11 games.
And he’s done all of this while playing more snaps at linebacker than on the defensive line as a primary pass rusher. He rushed the passer just over 300 times as a rookie. Only Maxx Crosby had a higher pressure rate a season ago.
Oh, and he was playing a position he hadn’t had practice in since he was a senior in high school. Some saw him flash off the edge in obvious passing downs at Penn State, but he wasn’t asked to purely rush often. A season ago, he was practically winning off his unrivaled athleticism alone. While not completely raw, you could tell he wasn’t a technician yet.
Winning at a ridiculous rate
Parsons is just the fifth player since ESPN’s Pash Rush Win Rate metric was introduced in 2017 to have a 50% win rate in consecutive games. Parsons has done that to start the season.
He’s currently winning at a rate about 10% higher than Von Miller, and Myles Garrett is closer to 15% behind through two games (doesn’t include Thursday Night Football). Only five defenders are being double-teamed at a higher rate.
But numbers are just numbers. A large group of NFL fans will tell anybody, even the experts literally paid to cover the game, to just “watch the damn game.”
Well, I did. And oh boy, the first two weeks were an absolute treat from Parsons.
Micah Parsons: Checking the tape
If there is only only one example through two weeks of how much of an alien the Cowboys’ second-year linebacker is, it’s the above play. From his first step to the tackle, this is superhuman.
His first step threatens the arc so much that La’el Collins is forced to open his hips in an attempt to push Parsons wide. Despite Parsons’ lackluster length (31-inch arms), the rusher controls Collins’ inside shoulder. From there, Parsons shows what power he possesses, which is a theme for the seemingly pocket-sized pass rusher.
He shoves Collins upfield and beelines for Joe Burrow. But Burrow is a wizard and slides back and away from the pressure. That is where the real alien stuff comes to play. Collins lays out to shove Parsons out of the play, but the 240-pounder somehow sticks his foot in the ground and explodes back in the opposite direction to finish the play for a sack.
Usually, there will be maybe four to six cuttable plays to act as examples of a player’s dominance in a two-game stretch. There were 10 Parsons cuts between Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, and that was being very picky.
A full pass-rush pallete
There is no longer a question about whether he’s an athlete rushing the passer or a true pass rusher. He has a full repertoire on the edge.
The timing of this spin is outstanding. He threatens the arc with his speed and attacks the inside foot of Donovan Smith, who counters by clubbing No. 11 in the head by accident. And although the veteran left tackle recovers well, Parsons’ flexibility and explosiveness are enough to sneak him through to Tom Brady.
While Josh Wells is no match for the average starter, let alone Parsons, the Cowboys rusher displays how to win with speed off the edge. Parsons does a half-shimmy to Wells’ inside foot before bending back outside and ripping through the recovery on the way to his second sack of Brady.
The only negative aspect of Parsons as a pass rusher is his propensity to over-rush and open up an escape route for opposing QBs. It hasn’t hurt them against Burrow or Brady, but he can’t do that against guys like Jalen Hurts.
Parsons holds unbelievable power in his hands, even if he doesn’t utilize it the way more traditional power rushers do, with technical hand-fighting techniques like cross chops or long arms. No, Parsons is more of a striker who disengages. But his power knocks back defenders who outweigh him by nearly 80 pounds.
Micah is so shifty that he often finds blockers unbalanced as they attempt to strike in pass protection. On those occasions, Micah will time his own strike into the chest of the blocker. He’ll use his left hand to guide and his right hand to strike.
His speed stresses blockers so much that even the best can find themselves off balance trying to beat him to the spot up the arc. Tristan Wirfs is one of the best in the game, and Parsons is able to uproot him enough to find a clear path to Brady, who finds his checkdown before Parsons can finish.
The inside rush
The inside rush from Micah Parsons is the most effective and terrifying in his repertoire. Aside from somehow winning cleanly up the arc, there is no quicker path to the QB. And with his speed and agility, he finds tackles oversetting with consistency to stop a clean outside rush.
But his hands are more violent and more accurate in year two than they were a season ago, although this was his most effective move as a rookie as well.
Jack of all trades, master of all
“Hybrid” players are usually a mixed bag. Safety/linebacker hybrids often aren’t outstanding in coverage and aren’t quite physical enough to play full-time in the box. Pass rushers that transition to off-ball linebacker (think Haason Reddick) don’t usually work out.
Parsons’ biggest question mark coming out of Penn State (on the field) was his inexperience in coverage. While he still doesn’t have a ton of experience in more traditional zone coverages, he showed last year that he was gaining a feel for it.
His added value in coverage situationally makes him such a versatile weapon. His pass breakup against Kenny Golladay a season ago was an absurd display of athleticism and instinct.
He’ll probably never gain the instinctual nature Eric Kendricks or Fred Warner have in coverage, but he can be a plus-coverage defender while also being arguably the most dominant pass rusher in the game.
And in games against the Kyler Murrays and Lamar Jacksons of the world, Parsons is probably the only linebacker in the sport that can actually keep up with the two.
Parsons has a mentality that he took inspiration from Penn State. His “lion” mentality has rubbed off on the entire defense. No Cowboys defense in the past decade has flown to the ball the way this one does.
The young linebacker is a vocal leader, but he also leads by example. He has a motor that never quits. He admitted in February that he’d played his entire rookie season with a lingering knee injury.
The Cowboys Swiss Army Knife will be the best player in the sport if he can stay healthy enough to be on the field. He’s already making a compelling argument that he’s the most dominant defensive force in the league. There’s a chance that he runs away with the Defensive Player of the Year award.
While he may not stay on this pace, if he remains clear of the entire field and nears the 20-sack mark while also spending time at linebacker, will it be enough to claim the crown so soon in his young career? What else must he do?
Hop aboard the bandwagon because it’s about to fill up.