College players opting out of the 2020 season is one of the many reasons this year's draft class is in a unique position. Even some of the nation's best prospects chose to sit out for the season rather than risk catching COVID-19 while potentially boosting their draft stock. Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, and Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley are all likely top-20 picks who opted out of playing last season. Among that group is also the subject of this week's Futures: Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons.
Though a first-round linebacker prospect now, Parsons has not always played from a stand-up alignment. Parsons was a five-star defensive end recruit coming out of high school. Upon arriving at Penn State, however, Parsons was converted to an off-ball linebacker spot and became a star right away. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound super athlete was one of the rare true freshmen to look like an NFL player out of the gate, and he only improved during his sophomore season in 2019.
What's exciting about watching Parsons is that it is clear how some of his work at defensive end has translated to linebacker. Parsons' ability to take on blocks is outstanding. Parsons regularly does well to beat the man across from him no matter the angle or assignment.
When facing combo blocks, a defense can force the issue on the blocker climbing to the second level in two ways. One, the defensive linemen can work into the blocker climbing up and delay the climb, therefore freeing up the linebacker. Conversely, if a linebacker is fast to trigger down against the climbing blocker, that blocker has to come off the combo early and may leave his adjacent offensive linemen in a compromised position. With Parsons (11) generally being fast to trigger and playing in a close alignment at just 3 1/2 yards, Penn State's defense forces the issue that way, allowing defensive end Shaka Toney (19) a favorable chance to disengage to make the play.
Triggering in a hurry to get that response from the climbing blocker is only part of the equation, though. Parsons still has to beat him, and he does. Parsons does a great job attacking through the offensive lineman's outside shoulder to free up his own outside arm in the C-gap (outside the tackle). From this position, Pitt's lead blocker from the backfield has to help deal with Parsons before moving to the next level, but Parsons has completely worked his frame free from the tackle, allowing him to handily stack and shed the lead blocker too. Parsons not only gets the two-for-one here, but still remains in a position that forces the runner to slow down and redirect into the rest of the defense. That kind of power and balance through contact is impressive.
Here is Parsons taking on just a lead blocker in the hole. Parsons' job here is more straightforward than in the last clip, but the technique and prowess is still lights-out. Like in the last play, Parsons is in a real close alignment and triggers right away. Parsons meets the lead blocker in the hole and gets himself as low as possible before initiating contact. Despite being 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Parsons gets low enough that the lead blocker does not have a clean target to hit. Parsons explodes up out of his stance as soon as he meets the lead blocker to shake him off and work straight to the running back, stopping this play for a pretty minimal gain. Be first to the gap, get low, explode out with an arm free. Textbook stuff.
Parsons also brings some easily applicable versatility to the table. In the case of some recent "linebacker" prospects, such as Isaiah Simmons last year and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah this year, they proved they could line up all over the field, but finding a way to bounce a player between linebacker, nickel, and safety in the NFL is tricky. It's not really a kind of flexibility that exists in the league for the most part. Parsons, on the other hand, brings versatility in the sense that he can line up at multiple linebacker positions. He will likely be a Mike (middle linebacker) in the NFL, but Parsons has proven himself capable of playing Sam (strongside linebacker), both on and off the line of scrimmage.
In both of these clips, Parsons flashes how devastating he can be in just one or two steps. Parsons does a great job turning his frame to get "skinny" through the gap and give the tight end nothing clean to block. When combined with his explosive athleticism, it is no wonder this particular maneuver was the reason for so many of Parsons' tackles for loss. Though Parsons is not exactly the same as either player, this kind of versatility is part of what makes linebackers such as D'onta Hightower and K.J. Wright special pieces for their respective defenses.
Parsons' head-on-fire pursuit aggression and speed is a nice feature to his game as well. There are an infinite number of clips to pull of Parsons chasing down someone on outside zone or a bubble screen or a jet sweep. Watch any game of Parsons and you will find at least three of those instances, guaranteed.
Players with Parsons' pursuit and speed can get away with some nonsense chasing down runs from the back side, too. Parsons proved himself capable of that with one of his goal-line stops against Michigan.
Everything about this play is a supreme display of determination and athleticism—the quick first step to explode through the line of scrimmage, the power to fight through the blocker, the speed and perseverance to hunt down the running back from behind. All of it comes together for a movie-esque goal-line stop that precious few linebackers have all the tools to pull off. Through no fault of Parsons, Michigan ended up scoring on the ensuing quarterback sneak, but Parsons' third-down tackle was still a potentially game-sealing effort.
Of course, any modern linebacker is also going to need to be proficient in coverage. That should not be an issue for Parsons, even if there are not many examples of Parsons doing something extraordinary in coverage. Parsons just does the ordinary very well.
If Parsons needs to expand with the No. 3 and leverage a stick route from a tight end, he can. If Parsons needs to take back a shallow crosser from the other side of the formation, he will not miss it. Parsons also carries running backs out of the backfield well, especially any time they try to get vertical on the sideline. The lone gripe is perhaps that Parsons was hardly asked to "roll and run" to cover intermediate crossers and dig routes the way NFL teams will ask him to do, but given his athleticism and proficiency elsewhere, I have a hard time believing Parsons will not figure it out.
Parsons did show off some heightened awareness in dealing with play-action, though. With the NFL pushing more and more towards play-action dominance, linebackers who can quickly diagnose a play as a pass and regain depth to cover the middle of the field are at a premium. Part of that will be rolling and running in the NFL, which takes some projection regarding Parsons, but he still flashed incredible discipline and range in recovering against play-action.
That first step forward against play-action is a given. Linebackers have been taught to key run first at every level of football for forever. It is what it is. The eye discipline to identify the play is a pass before moving down any further, as well as the athleticism to get back into coverage on time, is not a given. In this clip, Parsons does well to stop after his first step, find the tight end getting vertical, and flip his hips to run the pole with him. By the time Pitt's quarterback brings his eyes back to the middle of the field, Parsons has his hips around and is in a dead sprint to close the gap on the tight end. The window is closed, unless the quarterback dare try to fit this on the back shoulder with another defending lurking in the area.
On the field, there is precious little to knock Parsons down for. Perhaps there is something left to see in the coverage department, but that will be true of most college linebackers, and it's not like Parsons showed many mistakes in coverage. It is more that his coverage ceiling is a bit tricky to project than him not being capable in coverage.
If anything is going to keep teams away from Parsons, it will be the off-field. Parsons was one of a handful of players named in a hazing lawsuit against the Penn State football program in 2018. Parsons also reportedly got into a fight with the same player who named him in the hazing lawsuit. The allegations levied against Parsons were quite serious, and it will be up to NFL teams to decide whether or not that kind of behavior will be a problem for the linebacker in the future. For whatever it is worth, former teammate Yetur Gross-Matos was also named in the hazing lawsuit and was still drafted in the second round, which is about where he was expected to go.
Assuming Parsons does clear whatever low bar NFL teams tend to have for these things, he will be off the board early. Parsons has only been a full-time linebacker for two seasons of play, yet he showed all the processing speed, technique, and demeanor required of a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker. If this is what Parsons can be with limited time at the position, there is no telling where he could be another three years from now.