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 swapped motivational videos of late NBA star Kobe Bryant with Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. And he looks at how the greatest defenders in the NFL have lifted their team to the defending Super Bowl champions.
So Parsons thinks he and fellow Cowboys All-Pro Trevon Diggs are the best defensive duo the league has seen. He qualified his answer.
“It’s hard to say we’re the best because we’re young and we’re still making mistakes,” Parsons recently told USA TODAY Sports over Zoom. “With Aaron Donald (Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman) Jalen Ramsey, the greatest defensive player in history, it’s going to be tough to push us back.
“So I won’t do it yet. But I think we can become them or become better if we learn together and stick together.
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Donald’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year career included 98 sacks, 150 tackles and 23 forced fumbles over eight seasons. Ramsey’s 15 interceptions in six years didn’t fully reveal how he deflected throws, earning him a name as a three-time All-Pro shutdown corner.
Meanwhile, Parsons raised every level of the Cowboys’ defense in his rookie year. He produced 13 sacks on outside rushes and attacking up the middle. He forced three fumbles and notched 84 tackles—20 of them for a loss—as a coverage linebacker who displayed eye-popping finishing speed and elegant lateral movement. In order to frustrate offenses, he hopes to drastically expand his ability in Year 2 with recent film study and a year of experience.
“I would say last year I was a fish out of water,” Parsons said while promoting “Madden NFL 23,” in which he was excited about consumers’ ability to channel the Lightning. “I’m still growing a lot mentally and as a player, and I think when you’re a rookie coming into the league for the first time, you’re trying to see if you belong or not. I think I know where I want to be and where I belong in this league.
“I believe in myself and my faith.”
He also believes in Diggs.
“That’s what makes a player: 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 don’t win games. This league is about how many times you can get the ball back and you can get the ball back with turnovers. I’ll take that any day of the week.
Diggs’ aggressive confidence is 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 by any player in 40 years (Everson Walls’ 11 in 1981, Dick “Night Train” Lane’s 14-interception record intact from 1952). Parsons believes Diggs’ possession-adding talent outweighs the challenges posed by Diggs’ 16.1% missed tackle rate.
“His (danger) is overstated because he has a one-on-one position,” Parsons said. “People don’t realize that a lot of people gamble on the game. I also gamble. Any time the quarterback gets outside the pocket, that means a defensive lineman is gambling because it’s really a rush. The QB should never escape the pocket. Anytime a running back gets loose, you take a gamble as a linebacker.
“As a football player, you have to learn to pick and choose your battles and gamble.”
Parsons said there’s a reason no player has collected 11 interceptions in a career before.
“I thought without a doubt he was the best defensive player in the league last year,” Parsons said. “We have seen 20 sacks before. But in this era, we’ve never seen him reach 10-plus interceptions. So it’s disrespectful to me, because I think he deserves all the credit in the world and deserves to be named a top-five corner, if not the best corner in the league.
Contributing: Mackenzie Salmon, Colleen Brennan
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jory Epstein on Twitter @Jori Epstein.