Gambling Too High on Micah Parsons' Unique Talent Could Be Huge Draft Mistake

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 18, 2021

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons (11) in action against Purdue during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Barry Reeger/Associated Press

Penn State's Micah Parsons is a three-down linebacker, but not in the traditional sense. As a result, he might wind up being an NFL draft bust.

Whichever team selects him in the 2021 NFL draft must have a plan in place to benefit from his unique skill set. Having a unicorn on the roster won't matter if his coaching staff doesn't properly utilize him.

This year's unique predraft process makes the evaluation period even more difficult. With the combine canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and teams limited in their ability to interact with prospects, the incoming draft class will be the least vetted in decades. 

"The potential attempts to make the combine a traveling roadshow, like the draft, goes against the intended football role of the combine," an anonymous NFL executive told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer. "All 32 teams gathering in one spot for medical and interviews of top players and getting eyeballs on them moving around. It really affects the consistency of medical info and the process." 

The combine provided a standard for statistical and medical accumulation. Pro days and non-face-to-face meetings will create a variance in processes. 

These points of emphasis are particularly important in Parsons' case. His skill set differs from other linebackers, he didn't play this past season, and off-field concerns factor into the equation. 

The 6'3", 245-pound linebacker is a natural and instinctive downhill defender. He reads his key quickly, pulls the trigger and fires to fill his gap. That's to be expected of a former running back who understands lane assignments with the athleticism to consistently blow up plays in the backfield, as seen below: 

🧀 Run The Film 🧀 @PackChalkTalk

It’s one of my favorite times of the year: scouting for the draft. First up, Penn State LB Micah Parsons. Read and reacting to the run is one of the most crucial things I always look for in an LB. #NFLDraft https://t.co/OpOwVJKhJd

The end-zone view shows how quickly Parsons reads and reacts compared to his fellow second-line defenders. He showed eye discipline by working through the guard to the fullback and immediately shot his gap on his way to the tailback during a simple draw. Parsons was on the ball-carrier before senior linebacker Jan Johnson even made his second step toward the line of scrimmage. 

According to The Athletic's Bruce Feldman, the 2019 consensus All-American has excellent quick-twitch speed with a 4.43-second 40-yard dash and a 4.24-second timing in the short shuttle. Only three linebackers in last year's class posted a better result than the latter number, per Pro Football Reference. Outstanding performances in both categories demonstrate his tremendous straight-line quickness, lateral agility and the requisite closing speed to make plays all over the field. 

Parsons is a guided missile in how he attacks opposing offenses, which should come as no surprise after he converted from defensive end. He led the nation as Pro Football Focus' highest-graded run defender in 2019, and he ranked fifth at his position in the percentage of run-defense snaps played (19 percent) in which he was the first player to make contact with the ball-carrier. 

Parsons' greatest strength is a knack for blitzing and rushing the passer. He isn't just comfortable working off the edge if needed; his timing and feel for attacking opposing quarterbacks borders on supernatural. 

"There's a lot of ways we can use him in both ways," Penn State head coach James Franklin said during Parsons' freshman season after converting the 5-star recruit to linebacker, per The Athletic's Audrey Snyder. "I think we can use him as a linebacker and use him in personnel packages to blitz the quarterback, rush the quarterback."

Barry Reeger/Associated Press

Parsons' problems will potentially arise in coverage.

A three-down linebacker is traditionally capable of staying on the field because he won't be exploited in the passing game. However, Parsons isn't accustomed to dropping into space. He spent two seasons on campus transitioning from the defensive line to linebacker. 

To be fair, Parsons wasn't exploited at the collegiate level and showed an aptitude and instincts for zone coverage. PFF didn't credit him with giving up a single touchdown during his 539 career coverage snaps. 

However, there's a significant difference in how coaching staffs will game-plan to attack certain players between college and the NFL. He'll also face a higher caliber of tight ends, running backs and slot receivers than the ones he squared off against in college.

Despite his athleticism and potential, Parsons has yet to achieve the level of consistency he needs to excel in coverage, especially when opponents spread the field. Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is an excellent example of a young, gifted player who entered the league with outstanding upside only to struggle in coverage during his first few seasons. 

Knowing this, Parsons' next coaching staff must be prepared to game-plan with his specific skill set in mind. But given his limitations, he shouldn't come into play until the No. 7 overall pick.

The Detroit Lions, who hold the No. 7 pick, are transitioning from Matt Patricia's failed tenure to Dan Campbell's new staff. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is coming from the New Orleans Saints and coached All-Pro linebacker Demario Davis. The veteran off-ball linebacker registered 13 combined sacks over the last three seasons. If used similarly, Parsons could be well worth a top-10 selection. 

The Denver Broncos, who have the No. 9 overall pick, are also in search of linebacker help. Alexander Johnson has racked up 217 total tackles over the last two seasons, but he turns 30 later this year and will be a restricted free agent in March. Even if Johnson returns to the Broncos, Vic Fangio's squad lacks athleticism at the position. Fangio is an excellent defensive mind and should be able to properly utilize Parsons. 

Nick Wass/Associated Press

It's hard not to envision the New England Patriots correctly deploying Parsons if he slides to the 15th overall pick. After all, head coach Bill Belichick previously built his scheme around Dont'a Hightower, who is one of the biggest and most physical downhill linebackers in the game. However, Hightower turns 31 next month, and the Patriots can save nearly $10 million with his release. 

While the those three organizations would be the best fits, whichever team decides to draft Parsons must reconcile his previous off-field history. 

Parsons allegedly got in a fight with a teammate in 2018 that involved punching, choking and a knife being pulled, per ESPN's John BarrA lawsuit against Franklin and former Penn State defensive tackle Damion Barber also named Parsons among those who allegedly participated in "hazing acts that stimulated sexual assault" on lowerclassmen, according to NBC News' David K. Li

NFL organizations will be less informed than ever about prospects' backgrounds because of COVID-19 restrictions. These accusations can't be taken lightly, whether they were just acts of immaturity or signify deeper issues. 

Talent tends to trump trepidation. At the same time, franchises may be more willing to bypass a certain player if a comparable one without lingering questions remains on the board.

Parsons is a gifted athlete and talented defender. No one can deny his capabilities from an on-field perspective. If utilized correctly, he has the potential to develop into one of the game's better linebackers. 

But risk comes with this potential reward. Parsons needs to be in the right situation to excel. A team without the proper plan or locker room for the 21-year-old could be making a massive mistake with its first-round pick in April's draft. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.