Micah Parsons studies greatness.
The reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year paid close attention to the Golden State Warriors coach and players’ reactions to their latest championship. Parsons swaps videos of late NBA star Kobe Bryant’s motivation with Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. And he sees how the greatest defenders in the NFL helped lift their team to defending Super Bowl champions.
So Parsons considers whether he and fellow Cowboys All-Pro Trevon Diggs are the best defensive duo the league has seen. I have qualifies his answer from him.
“It’s hard to say we’re the best because I know we’re young and we still make mistakes,” Parsons told USA TODAY Sports over Zoom recently. “It’s hard to put us over (Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman) Aaron Donald, the greatest defensive player in history, with Jalen Ramsey.
“So I won’t do it yet. But I think we can become them or even better if we learn together and stick together.”
Donald’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year career has featured 98 sacks, 150 tackles for loss and 23 forced fumbles across eight seasons. Ramsey’s 15 interceptions in six years don’t fully reveal the scope of how he’s redirected throws, the three-time All-Pro earning a reputation as a shutdown corner.
Meanwhile, Parsons elevated each level of the Cowboys’ defense in his rookie year. He generated 13 sacks from a combination of outside rushes and attacking up the middle. He forced three fumbles and notched 84 tackles—20 of them for loss—as a coverage linebacker who demonstrated eye-popping closing speed and sleek lateral movement. To offenses ‘dismay, he expects recent film study and a year of experience to drastically expand his efficacy in Year 2.
“I would just say last year I was a fish in the water,” said Parsons, speaking while promoting “Madden NFL 23,” in which he’s excited about users’ ability to send him blitzing. “I was still growing so much mentally and as a player, and I think when you’re a rookie first getting in the league, you’re trying to see if you belong or not. I think I kind of know where I want to be and where I’m at in this league.
“I believe in myself and my confidence.”
He believes in Diggs’, too.
“That’s what makes the player he is: his confidence, his willingness to go after the ball,” Parsons said. “I’ve seen a lot of corners not give up yards, but their teams aren’t winning games. This league is about how many times you can get the ball back, and you get the ball back with turnovers. I’d take that any day of the week.”
Diggs’ aggressive confidence has proven both integral to his exceptional ball-hawking and detrimental to his coverage skills. His 11 interceptions not only led the league in 2021 but also marked the most swipes by any player in 40 years (Everson Walls had 11 in 1981, Dick “Night Train” Lane’s 14-interception record intact since 1952). Parsons thinks that possession-adding talent far exceeds the challenges posed by Diggs’ 16.1% missed tackle rate.
“His (risk) is pointed out more because he has such a one-on-one position,” Parsons said. “People don’t realize that a lot of people gamble throughout the game. Even I gamble. Any time a quarterback gets outside the pocket, it means a defensive lineman gambled, because it’s all really a contained rush. The QB should never escape the pocket. Any time a running back gets loose, that means you took a gamble as a linebacker.
“As a football player, you have to learn to pick and choose your battles and what to gamble.”
Parsons said there’s a reason no player had previously collected 11 interceptions in his lifetime.
“Without a doubt I thought he was the best defensive player in the league last year,” Parsons said. “We’ve seen 20 sacks before. But in this era, we’ve never seen anyone reach 10-plus interceptions. So it’s disrespectful to me, because I think he deserves all the credit in the world and he deserves to be named a top-five corner if not the best corner in the league.
Contributing: Mackenzie Salmon, Collin Brennan
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @joriepstein.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism