The Cowboys defense has been a lot better in 2021 than it was in 2020, and Micah Parsons has played a huge role in that improvement.

Parsons, the first-round pick for the Cowboys out of Penn State, has put together one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history. He has 79 tackles, 12 sacks and three forced fumbles in his first 14 games, and he has only gotten better throughout the season. There has been no “rookie wall” for the dominant defender.

As a result of his performance, Parsons has gotten universal praise and looks like a shoo-in for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

But could Parsons compete for an even loftier award — Defensive Player of the Year? Apparently, some NFL executives like his chances. 

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Will Micah Parsons win the Defensive Player of the Year award?

Parsons will win Defensive Rookie of the Year barring a massive surprise, but can he compete for the Defensive Player of the Year award? Some NFL executives believe that he could, as NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported in a recent article.

“Micah’s having a hell of a year,” an NFC executive said. “Every time we study [the Cowboys], he’s making plays all over the joint. And he’s such a versatile piece. Whether he’s playing off the edge, playing in the middle, dropping, moving forward — he’s sideline to sideline. He’s easily the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and I don’t know that he’s not the Defensive Player of the Year.”

That’s some lofty praise, but it is warranted. Parsons has been one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL, as he has played a significant role on both the defensive line and at linebacker for the Cowboys.

According to Pro Football Focus, Parsons has lined up on the defensive line for 332 snaps, or 41.3 percent of his total snaps. He has lined up in the box at the linebacker positions on 438 snaps, 54.5 percent of his total snaps. That’s nearly a 50-50 split, and that’s impressive considering that Parsons was drafted to be a middle linebacker for the team.

Why has Parsons lined up on the defensive line so much? It’s all about his pass-rushing ability, as one AFC executive told Pelissero.

“Really, the pass rush is what separates him,” said an AFC executive. “He’s just got an incredible get-off, burst, so explosive, can beat you with speed, speed-to-power [and he’s] getting a better arsenal.”

Parsons’ versatility, pass rush pressure and overall statistics will keep him in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion. That said, only one player in NFL history has been able to win that award as a rookie: Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.

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How Micah Parsons’ stats in 2021 compares to Lawrence Taylor’s stats in 1981

Parsons has drawn some lofty comparisons to the great Taylor thanks to his rookie year performance. That includes kind words from Saquon Barkley, who was particularly impressed with him ahead of the Giants’ second meeting with the Cowboys.

“I’ve never really seen anything like him. He’s really LT-like, to be honest,” Barkley told Yahoo Sports in mid-December. “It is what it is: He’s insane. Every week, [Parsons is] one of those guys that, even if I can’t watch his game, I’ll look and say, ‘What is he doing?’

“And I am not just saying this because we’re friends. The sky is really the limit with him. If he keeps working hard and keeping his head on straight, he can be even better than he is now. That’s the scary thing.”

Barkley is right, as Parsons’ first-year production actually stacks up well with Taylor’s. While Taylor was a more ferocious tackler than Parsons during his first season, Parsons has, surprisingly, fared better as a pass rusher. He is projected to tie the NFL’s rookie sack record set by Jevon Kearse in 1999 at 14.5, as you can see in his projections for a 17-game season below.

StatLawrence TaylorMicah Parsons projections

Even if Parsons doesn’t get another sack this season, he’ll still rank seventh all-time among rookies with his 12 sacks. Meanwhile, Taylor, who is considered one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history, had 9.5 sacks as a rookie, though the number is technically unofficial, as sacks weren’t counted as an official stat until 1982. He would go on to average nearly 11 sacks per game and posted a 20.5-sack season in 1986.

But as a rookie, Parsons has him beaten as as pass rusher. How impressive is this for Parsons? Well, considering that he was drafted into the league as a linebacker and wasn’t expected to be a key edge rusher in Dallas’ 4-3 defensive alignment, it’s a big accomplishment. Injuries forced him to play on the defensive line more, and he has delivered with these massive sack numbers.

Despite his success and the praise from fellow NFL players like Barkley, Parsons isn’t yet willing to put himself in the pantheon with the all-time greats and Hall of Famers like Taylor.

“It’s really too early,” Parsons said of being compared to Taylor, per the Associated Press. “I could see the similarities. But LT was completely different. It’s an honor that people are doing that. But to be compared to a Hall of Famer so early on, I mean it’s not ready to be in the conversation yet. I still have a long way to go.”

That said, Parsons also acknowledged that he is working very hard to ensure that he can eventually become one of those greats.

“That drive I have inside of me, wanting to be great, wanting to do more, wanting more on my plate just comes with wanting to do this,” Parsons said. “I don’t think nobody can become something by sitting back and watch and waiting for something to happen. I am trying to initiate it to happen.”

As such, he may become a perennial candidate for Defensive Player of the Year — if he keeps this up.

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Full list of NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winners

The NFL has awarded the Defensive Player of the Year award since 1971. In its history, the award has gone to a defensive lineman 24 times, as defensive back 10 times and a linebacker 16 times. Three of those 16 linebacker awards went to Lawrence Taylor.

If Parsons is able to win the award, he would become the first linebacker to win the award since Luke Kuechly took home the hardware in 2013. Parsons would also become the first Cowboy to win the award since Harvey Martin, a defensive end, won it back in 1977.

Below is the full list of the award winners in chronological order.

1971Alan PageDefensive tackleVikings
1972Joe GreeneDefensive tackleSteelers
1973Dick AndersonSafetyDolphins
1974Joe GreeneDefensive tackleSteelers
1975Mel BlountCornerbackSteelers
1976Jack LambertLinebackerSteelers
1977Harvey MartinDefensive endCowboys
1978Randy GradisharLinebackerBroncos
1979Lee Roy SelmonDefensive endBuccaneers
1980Lester HayesCornerbackRaiders
1981Lawrence TaylorLinebackerGiants
1982Lawrence TaylorLinebackerGiants
1983Doug BettersDefensive endDolphins
1984Kenny EasleySafetySeahawks
1985Mike SingletaryLinebackerBears
1986Lawrence TaylorLinebackerGiants
1987Reggie WhiteDefensive endEagles
1988Mike SingletaryLinebackerBears
1989Keith MillardDefensive tackleVikings
1990Bruce SmithDefensive endBills
1991Pat SwillingLinebackerSaints
1992Cortez KennedyDefensive tackleSeahawks
1993Rod WoodsonCornerbackSteelers
1994Deion SandersCornerback49ers
1995Bryce PaupLinebackerBills
1996Bruce SmithDefensive endBills
1997Dana StubblefieldDefensive tackle49ers
1998Reggie WhiteDefensive endPackers
1999Warren SappDefensive tackleBuccaneers
2000Ray LewisLinebackerRavens
2001Michael StrahanDefensive endGiants
2002Derrick BrooksLinebackerBuccaneers
2003Ray LewisLinebackerRavens
2004Ed ReedSafetyRavens
2005Brian UrlacherLinebackerBears
2006Jason TaylorDefensive endDolphins
2007Bob SandersSafetyColts
2008James HarrisonLinebackerSteelers
2009Charles WoodsonCornerbackPackers
2010Troy PolamaluSafetySteelers
2011Terrell SuggsLinebackerRavens
2012J. J. WattDefensive endTexans
2013Luke KuechlyLinebackerPanthers
2014J. J. WattDefensive endTexans
2015J. J. WattDefensive endTexans
2016Khalil MackDefensive endRaiders
2017Aaron DonaldDefensive tackleRams
2018Aaron DonaldDefensive tackleRams
2019Stephon GilmoreCornerbackPatriots
2020Aaron DonaldDefensive tackleRams