Examining whether Cowboys’ Micah Parsons can make jump from DROY to DPOY in Year 2

Expectations were high for Micah Parsons for his rookie season after the Cowboys drafted him 12th overall in 2021. It’s safe to say that it lived up to the hype.

The former Penn State linebacker put on a dynamic campaign, leading all rookies with 13 sacks, 30 quarterback hits and 20 tackles for loss while having the second-highest combined tackles (84 to Nick Bolton’s 112) along the way to the unanimous victory as Defensive Rookie of the Year.

But the figures from his first campaign were not only good for the rookies. His 89.7 defensive rating on PFF led all linebackers, as did his 93 pass rush rating, which was nine ahead of Denzel Perryman.

Were it not for a historic season for TJ Watt, Parsons would have been named Defensive Player of the Year for 2021. On the way to his second campaign, could he take the next step and take home the next piece of hardware?

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The Sporting News takes a look at which players in NFL history have made the leap and what Parsons can do to become Defensive Player of the Year.

DROY to DPOY

In the history of the AP Awards, there have only been two players who went from Defensive Rookie of the Year to Defensive Player of the Year.

The first was Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. In 1981 he was named both DROY and DPOY. Then he won DPOY again in 1982. He is the only rookie in NFL history to win both awards in the same season.

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It was a long time before a player would rise from best defensive rookie to best defensive player. In 2012, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was named Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was named Defensive Player of the Year the following season.

All told, there have been nine players who have won both awards in their careers and the list is impressive: Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Taylor, Dana Stubblefield, Brian Urlacher, Charles Woodson, Terrell Suggs, Kuechly and Aaron Donald. The only non-Hall of Famer players in this group are Stubblefield, Suggs, Kuechly, and Donald. Suggs and Kuechly are not yet eligible, and Donald is still active.

How Micah Parsons can win DPOY

Given his stellar rookie season, it feels like a certain Parsons will at least be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year by the end of the season, and odds makers agree. Sports Interactive gives him the fourth best odds on DPOY at +640, behind only Myles Garrett, Donald and Watt.

As a linebacker, Parsons is already off to a good start in making that happen.

In the history of the Defensive Player of the Year award, 17 of the winners have been linebackers. The next next position is the defensive end at 14.

Here’s a look at the average stat line for linebackers who have won the award in the past compared to Parsons in 2021:

solo tackles Assist tackles bags
Average 82.6 8/30 8.6
pastor 64 20 13

Parsons already has the sack numbers, and there’s plenty of reason to think he could improve on those in 2022. Parsons had his highest single-season pressure rate since 2016 at 22.9 percent, according to Sports Info Solutions.

And he just got better and better as the season progressed. For the first eight weeks of the season, PFF gave him an average pass rush grade of 75.5. In the last nine weeks of the campaign, he achieved an 84.2 grade point average. During that stretch, he recorded 10.5 of his 13 sacks and 42 of his 84 total tackles.

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Cleaning up the sacks will be one of the keys to becoming Defensive Player of the Year. Of the past 11 Defensive Player of the Year winners, all but four winners had at least 13.5 sacks. The only exceptions? Cornerback Stephon Gilmore (zero in 2019), Donald (11 in 2017), Khalil Mack (11 in 2016), and Kuechly (two in 2013).

He will have a chance to attack some vulnerable offensive lines as well. Here’s a look at the Cowboys’ schedule with opponents’ pass-block PFF scores:

Week Opponent Pass the block grade
1 privateer 81.3 (2nd)
2 Bengal 56.9 (25th)
3 Giants 52.9 (30th)
4 commanders 78.3 (4th)
5 Aries 81.4 (1st)
6 Eagle 77.6 (5th)
7 lions 65.4 (19th)
8th bears 66.8 (18th)
10 packer 73.8 (8th)
11 viking 54.7 (27th)
12 Giants 55.3 (22nd)
13 foal 59.2 (23rd)
14 texan 59.2 (23rd)
fifteen jaguars 70.1 (12th)
16 Eagle 77.6 (5th)
17 Titans 53.3 (29th)
18 commanders 78.3 (4th)

While the Cowboys face off against the top two pass blockers a season ago, they won’t be the same groups. The Rams lost their best offensive lineman from a season ago to retirement in Andrew Whitworth, while the Buccaneers watched guard Alex Cappa go freehand and now have to deal with an injury to center Ryan Jensen that’s killing him the season could cost. The top offensive line among Cowboys division rivals, the Commanders, was hit hard by free agency departures, with Ereck Flowers and Brandon Scherff both departing. That’s a schedule that could help him tally more sacks.

Parsons brings more value than just his ability to rush the passerby. He’s involved in seemingly every play. Of the defensive players with at least 10 sacks in 2021, none had more than Parsons’ 64 solo tackles, while only Cam Heyward (89) had more than Parsons’ 84 combined tackles, per Stathead. He was also a force in passing coverage, earning a PFF coverage score of 69.4 that placed him 12th among qualifiers.

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If there’s one area where Parsons could improve, it might be in stopping the run. Last year, he ranked 22nd out of 54 qualified linebackers in the running defense class, according to the PFF. But given his primary use in pass rushing, with all of his defensive-line snaps coming on the sidelines, it probably won’t be a necessary upgrade to be considered for DPOY.

Parsons finished second in last year’s voting in his freshman season. Could he make the leap to win the award in his second campaign? It’s very easy to see that happening.

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