If three is a crowd, what is four?
The Cowboys loaded up at linebacker on Thursday evening, making Penn State’s Micah Parsons their second first-round pick at the position in four years. He follows Leighton Vander Esch in that regard while joining Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Keanu Neal in a suddenly packed linebacker room.
This wasn’t Plan A.
The front office activated a contingency plan once cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II were selected No. 8 and 9 overall, respectively. It bailed out of the No. 10 pick, moving to No. 12 while acquiring the Philadelphia Eagles’ third-round pick on Friday (No. 84 overall).
At 12, Parsons was the team’s best remaining defender on the board.
Thus, he became the pick.
Parsons is a far less tidy fit on paper than Horn or Surtain would have been. There is also a clutter for playing time.
Neal, a converted safety, signed a one-year contract in March. The Cowboys planned to begin him at linebacker. The expectation now is that he will revert to safety, but he and Donavon Wilson don’t complement each other in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s scheme especially well. Quinn relies on a single-high safety to play with range in Cover 3. Neal and Wilson are better in the box.
Parsons projects as the interior (Mike) linebacker in Dallas for years to come.
Vander Esch, the Mike last season when healthy, likely will switch to the weak-side (Will) spot while Smith works on the strong side (Sam).
Parsons’ presence would appear to answer the question about whether Dallas will exercise Vander Esch’s fifth-year team option. If the team picks that up, Vander Esch would earn a fully guaranteed $9.145 million salary in 2022. It now seems a foregone conclusion that 2021 will become a scheduled contract year for him.
Be it due to injuries or intangibles, neither Vander Esch nor Smith has embraced the Cowboys’ need for young leadership at linebacker. Had either done so, perhaps Parsons would be beginning his NFL career elsewhere.
The 2021 season will be Parsons’ first in a while. He opted out of the 2020 campaign amid the COVID-19 pandemic to begin training for his NFL career. He is an incredibly gifted athlete who totaled 191 tackles, six forced fumbles and 6 1/2 sacks in two seasons with the Nittany Lions. He projects as an asset in coverage.
At his March pro day, Parsons was timed at 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had a 126-inch broad jump at 6-3 and 246 pounds.