With the amount of buzz the quarterbacks in the 2021 NFL Draft class have received throughout the season and now leading up to the draft, it seems that there are a handful of top players who aren’t being discussed as frequently as they deserve. As someone who loves quarterbacks and the discussion of who should be QB2 after Trevor Lawrence, or is Zach Wilson just a one-year wonder, or does Trey Lance have the highest ceiling of all of the passers; we are still overlooking some other top players who are not passers.
One player who is getting a bit lost in the shuffle is Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who is arguably one of the best linebackers to come out of college in recent years. Parsons was a name that many in the draft community tabbed as a future first-round pick after last year’s draft concluded and we began to take a preliminary look at the 2021 class. Parsons was phenomenal in his sophomore season and was named a first-team All-American while finishing as a finalist for the Butkus Award for the best linebacker in the country. On the season, Parsons recorded 109 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks, and four forced fumbles to firmly establish himself as one of the best players in all of college football. It was no surprise Parsons was being talked about as one of the best overall players in this year’s upcoming class, and while he still is viewed as a great prospect, it does appear that his stock has cooled off.
Earlier in the season most mock drafts had Parsons come off the board around picks five through eight and as the first defensive player off the board. Now, it is much more common to see Parsons drafted in the mid-teens, and there are some instances of him being the second or third linebacker off the board. So, what has changed from then to now?
There are a few factors. The first here is the out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon. Because Parsons opted out of this year’s college football season, he is being forgotten about, in large part, due to recency bias. We are seeing this happen with quite a few top college players who opted out of the season; top prospects like wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, offensive tackle Penei Sewell, and EDGE Gregory Rousseau all experiencing questions about their status as being the best players at their respective positions. Given the fact that other linebackers such as Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Tulsa’s Zaven Collins not only played in 2020 but had outstanding seasons, it's easy to see why those names might have a little more buzz than Parsons, who was out and away from the spotlight.
Another reason for the apparent fall is Parsons’ position. Linebacker is not considered a premium position when it comes to selecting at the top of the draft. The NFL values quarterbacks, offensive tackles, pass rushers, and corners above other positions; and these players are usually the ones teams like to invest top draft capital in. Parsons is an off-ball linebacker, and those historically don’t go in the top five or 10 very often. However, if the Super Bowl taught us anything, it's that having athletic and rangy linebackers can make a huge difference for a defense. Drafting an off-ball linebacker may seem like a questionable move, but we have seen two instances in recent years where teams have invested a top-10 pick on an off-ball linebacker and have been more than pleased with the result. In 2018, the Chicago Bears selected Roquan Smith eighth overall, and then a year later the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Devin White fifth overall. Both Smith and White have made their respective teams look brilliant with those draft picks, and both are now top players at their position. Drafting an off-ball linebacker in the top 10 is perfectly okay as long as the player is talented enough. White and Smith clearly were, and so is Parsons.
As a prospect, Parsons is in that same tier as White and Smith from a talent perspective, but his playing style is different. Parsons is a physical, downhill, attacking linebacker who has the skill set to affect the game in multiple ways. Parsons has outstanding size, athletic ability, and length for the position.
As a run defender, he wins with his rare burst, explosion, speed, and aggressiveness. Parsons displays above-average instincts and shows an ability to quickly diagnose plays, scrape across the formation, and fill the hole. He is excellent at slipping and eluding ensuing blockers and has the length and strength in his hands to stack and shed if a lineman does engage. If Parsons is able to diagnose and see the play develop, he has the speed and burst to beat the ball carrier to the spot and make the tackle for loss. He has outstanding straight-line speed, and because of that has the range to play sideline to sideline and make plays in lateral pursuit. He is a physical tackler, who will miss some tackles because he comes in too aggressive and doesn’t fully breakdown.
His athleticism and physical traits also translate in the passing game. Parsons has the speed and ability to change direction to cover most backs and tight ends in man coverage and in shallow zone coverage assignments. Where he could improve is when he is asked to drop in intermediate to deep zones; he doesn’t look comfortable moving backward. While that is a weakness, it is something he can still improve upon; it's not that he simply lacks the athletic ability to do so. This issue is often one that comes up when evaluators discuss why Parsons shouldn’t be a top-10 player, and they’ll point to the fact that he isn’t great in coverage, especially in today’s NFL where having linebackers who can cover is essential to a strong defense. Based on my tape study, Parsons isn’t as fluid or comfortable in zone drops as White or Smith, but to act like he is a liability in pass coverage isn’t accurate.
Where Parsons sets himself apart from White and Smith is his ability as a blitzer. Parsons is the best blitzing linebacker I have seen in quite some time; he uses his instincts, burst, and closing speed to routinely get home. As a former high school defensive end, you can tell he is very comfortable rushing the passer. He is able to time the snap and is extremely quick off the line of scrimmage to beat lineman out of their stances. He has an explosive first step and is able to turn speed to power as a bull rusher and can also slip and evade offensive lineman with the length and body control to turn the corner and finish. One could argue that his ability as a pass rusher is his best overall trait; pair that with his ability as a run stuffer and you’ll see why many in the league believe he is the best defensive player in this class.
The team that drafts Parsons will be getting a player who can step in and be an instant difference-maker. He can play in any scheme, but he would be best utilized in an attacking style of defense that blitzes their linebackers regularly. Parsons reminds me of a more athletic Dont’a Hightower before his injuries and can have that level of impact as a run defender and a pass rusher. While Parsons may not be getting the buzz he once was getting back in the summer, I fully expect Parsons to be a top-10 pick and be an impact player very early on in his career.
- Jun 24, 2022
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