FRISCO, Texas — As Thursday night bled into Friday morning in April 2021 during the NFL draft, Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones repeated: “Pressure, pressure, pressure.”
The Cowboys were mere hours removed from selecting Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons with the 12th overall draft pick, a surprise decision. Drafting a cornerback or safety? That would have checked out for a franchise whose secondary had struggled mightily in recent years. Choosing a defensive end to wreck pockets? That, too, could have been justified given the value of rushing in an increasingly pass-heavy league.
But Parsons was an off-ball linebacker in college. Could he really blow up pockets the way the Cowboys envisioned?
Fast-forward 17 months and the now-reigning defensive Rookie of the Year has done just that. Last week, Parsons became the first player in NFL history to notch 17 sacks in his first 18 career games, despite Parsons aligning primarily along the defensive line in just six of those contests. Parsons raced to 13 sacks, 83 tackles, 37 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles as a rookie. Through the first two weeks of this NFL season, he has amassed four sacks (tied for the league-most), five hurries and 13 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus.
“He’s inordinate in his intensity,” Jones said last Tuesday on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “You can’t always get your finger on that when you’re evaluating a player, but boy, his intensity. And of course that translates with his natural athletic ability, which is freakish.
“In this game which is ‘Pressure Player City,’ if you can be a pressure player … you can do some damage. And he is that.”
As the Cowboys open NFC East play Monday night against the New York Giants, they look for Parsons to continue impacting quarterbacks and games. Around the hallways of Cowboys headquarters, the question isn’t will Parsons dominate, but how.
‘Not just his speed, but his smarts’
Parsons has lined up for 120 defensive snaps through two games, per PFF. Ninety-five times he has attacked from the defensive line, 24 times as a down linebacker and once Parsons aligned in the secondary.
Even that split doesn’t fully capture the diversity Parsons has integrated into his game in Year 2. As an edge rusher, Parsons has aligned across opponents’ left tackles and their right. He has circled outside en route to the pocket and swam inside. Former nine-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, whose 12-season career with the Cowboys and Broncos included 138.5 sacks, marveled at Parsons’ effectiveness on the move.
“Not just his speed, but his smarts,” Ware told Yahoo Sports by phone Sunday. “Usually when you first come in, they’re like, ‘Hey, just dip and rip. Dip and rip around the corner.’ Now I’m starting to see him sharpen his toolbox and use other people’s moves to be effective in his own way.”
Ware pointed to Parsons’ first sack of the season, when Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced third-and-5 from Dallas’ 8-yard line halfway through the second quarter. When Parsons rushed from the right side, Buccaneers left tackle Donovan Smith kicked out to block him. Parsons didn’t hesitate, instead spinning inside and reaching for Brady’s ankle to complete the sack. Tampa Bay settled for a 36-yard field-goal attempt that was no good.
Parsons sacked Brady again the following drive, quashing another promising red-zone visit. The following week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Parsons sacked Joe Burrow twice — once rushing from left edge and dipping underneath, the other time rounding from right defensive end.
Parsons’ point of attack changed. Opponents’ “focal point,” head coach Mike McCarthy said, will not.
“When [opponents] play the Dallas Cowboys, he’s probably the first one they’re talking about in their offensive room,” McCarthy said. “We have to continue to create targeting challenges for the offense [to] make the offensive staff of the opponent work harder, the challenge of where he is.
“Because at the end of the day, he’s so disruptive.”
So how will that play out against the Giants?
New plan vs. New York?
The Cowboys will likely again shift Parsons’ assignments. The Giants have averaged 5.2 rushing yards per attempt compared to 5 passing yards per attempt, with star Saquon Barkley compiling 282 yards from scrimmage (236 rushing) and a touchdown, including a 68-yard carry he ripped off while bursting down the left sideline in the Giants’ season-opening win at Tennessee.
Cowboys defenders discussed in meetings the threat Barkley’s speed, elusiveness and knack for jump cuts pose. Perimeter runs and left-side attempts will be a point of emphasis. Ware said if he were defensive coordinator, he would favor Parsons’ right-side coverage to account for that.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said he doesn’t want Parsons playing just rush end.
“There is temptation to keep him there because he’s had success doing that,” Quinn said. “But he’s also a really good linebacker too and he can make plays off the ball that may not add up into some of the spaces. Having the ability to be not always where you’re supposed to be adds value.”
Parsons demonstrated that value in the Cowboys’ opener. On second-and-2 late in the first quarter, Brady handed the ball off to running back Leonard Fournette. Parsons had rushed the passer the snap immediately prior, but now appeared again a middle linebacker. As Bucs blockers cleared Fournette’s path, Parsons cut through a lane along which five of his teammates were engaged. Just as Fournettte reached the open field, Parsons threw him out of bounds.
Fournette gashed Dallas for 17 yards, but didn’t score. The Bucs settled for a field goal on a drive that had momentarily seemed destined to end with Fournette in the end zone.
Parsons welcomes the chance to make plays like that, whether it’s game-changing sacks — or simply being disruptive so his teammates benefit.
“The best player in the league, I don’t want to be anything short of that,” Parsons said. “Being the best player in the league doesn’t mean you are going to have 20 sacks. Being the best player in the league leads your teams to championships and wins and having the best defense.
“I have to make everyone around me better. I have to be one of those guys you can lean on in big moments.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein https://twitter.com/JoriEpstein