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Why the Detroit Lions should draft Micah Parsons

Making the case for one of the most polarizing prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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Indiana v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

I’m going to be honest with y’all upfront: I drew the proverbial short straw on this one. Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons is not my preferred pick for the Detroit Lions in the first round. In fact, Parsons was not even on my list of 10 “acceptable” picks for the Lions with the seventh overall selection.

But I enjoy the mental exercise of trying to prove the opposite point. The world needs a little more understanding these days, and it doesn’t hurt to read the opinions of those that disagree with you.

There is certainly a case to be made that Parsons is the kind of player the Lions cannot afford to pass on. He’s a ridiculous athlete, a huge playmaker, and fits one of the biggest needs currently facing the Lions roster.

So let’s lay out the entire case for the Detroit Lions drafting Micah Parsons. We’ll tackle the good, the bad, and everything in between. But let’s start with some of the main concerns.

The character issues

I take character issues very seriously when it comes to scouting a player. Sometimes they’re overblown as a result of over-scouting, but oftentimes it’s a critical part of the process. One only has to look back a couple of years at the issues surrounding another “can’t miss” linebacker prospect in Reuben Foster as evidence that character matters. And if I’m making an unpopular case for a linebacker at seven overall, I’m going to explore Micah Parsons, the person, as thoroughly as possible.

Unfortunately, Parson’s off-field character is murky, at best. I do not take these accusations lightly, so let’s dive into some of these incidents to get a clearer picture.

The first that’s often brought up is him “inciting a riot” at high school, an incident that contributed to him transferring back in 2016. According to Parson’s father, the incident stemmed from a racist social media post. Parsons confronted someone in a cafeteria about it and was escorted out. Here’s how Parson’s father explains the situation after watching it on tape.

“The police were to his left, he was to their right, he turned his head and called another football player. They threw him out and said he tried to incite a riot, but, on video, nobody was running or moving or anything.”

There are some that say Parsons yelled “gun” during the incident—hence the “inciting a riot” claims—but it’s unclear if that’s true.

There was also the issue of his short-lived interest from Ohio State. After de-committing from Penn State, he was brought in for a visit with the Buckeyes. Some believe Ohio State stopped recruiting him after Parsons tweeted—while at the game—that the team should replace J.T. Barrett with Dwayne Haskins. Then Ohio State coach Urban Meyer was asked if comments like that could affect their recruitment, and while he can’t respond directly about a specific recruit, he admitted it could, theoretically, make an impact.

“Sure,” Meyer said per The Athletic. “I was made aware of something and I let other people … I was made aware of it.”

However, it appears the main culprit of Ohio State’s lost interest in Parsons was a self-reported violation of recruiting policy. Parsons visited the “College Gameday” set at ESPN while in Columbus, and according to The Lantern, recruits are not permitted to “have contact with members of the media associated with former student-athletes.” (ie: Kirk Herbstreit).

The most concerning of Parsons’ off-field issues stem from a lawsuit filed by a former Penn State teammate Isaiah Humphries. In it, Humphries accuses Parsons, along with two other Nittany Lions (Damion Barber and Yetur Gross-Matos), for hazing that ranged from dumping water onto Humphries to sexual assault claims. Here are the details of the allegations from Humphries via ESPN:

Humphries told school investigators that Barber and Parsons threatened him, telling him they were “making me a b---- because this is prison” and that Barber said, “I’m gonna Sandusky you,” referring to former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. He also said they would try to place genitalia close to players’ faces and simulate sex acts and attempt to touch him in the shower, according to the report. He said the three players would wrestle him to the ground while clad only in their towels.

It’s worth noting that some teammates pointed to Barber for the more serious hazing accusations, noting that the other two did not appear to be involved. More via ESPN:

Those two players who described Barber’s behavior to investigators said they did not see Gross-Matos or Parsons touch teammates inappropriately, according to the draft report.

What is clear, however, is that there was a direct incident between Parsons and Humphries. The two were involved in a fight after Parsons allegedly poured water on Humphries. Per Humphries, Parsons then began to choke him and wouldn’t stop, which eventually led Humphries to pull a knife out, ending the fight immediately. Parsons was put on “conduct probation” for seven months because of the incident.

Putting all of these incidents together, it’s clear Parson’s character needs to be vetted thoroughly. There are a lot of conflicting stories here and some misinformation about these incidents, but there is more than enough here for teams to have to do some thorough homework here, especially if the plan is to spend a top-10 pick on him. I’m not going to pretend I know Parsons is a “good” or “bad” person based on what is known publicly. But for what it’s worth, this was his response to his checkered past:

I wouldn’t call his answer “brilliant,” as just blaming “being a kid” doesn’t really take full responsibility for his actions. Still, as someone who made embarrassingly awful decisions as a kid, it’s hard not to at least understand where he’s coming from. For the more serious allegations, though, age is no excuse. They cannot be ignored, and if during the scouting process the Lions can’t be fully comfortable with their character evaluation of Parsons, they would be wise to pass on him.

Is a linebacker worth it?

The other argument against Parsons at seven is simply the value of an off-ball linebacker there, especially in a scheme that will likely only use two linebackers most of the time.

It’s hard to know exactly where this narrative sprung from, but one source is likely this 2020 study from Timo Riske of PFF. In it, he measured the correlation between draft position and PFF grade. The results showed that there was almost no correlation, suggesting one of two things: either scouts are horrible a scouting linebacker talent or that the level in play between a “good” and “okay” linebacker isn’t all that much.

However, this article from our frienemies over at Acme Packing Company suggests linebacker is more valuable of a position than expected. Author Peter Bukowski took the top 30 players at each position from 2017-19 and ranked the positions by average “Total Points”—a metric by Sports Info Solutions that measures value on each individual play.

In that study, linebackers came in as the third most valuable position, behind only quarterback and edge defenders. On the surface, that makes plenty of sense, too. Linebackers are involved in almost every play on defense, seeing as they’re required to run defend, rush the passer and drop into coverage. No player has to be more versatile than an NFL linebacker.

Combining those results with PFF’s suggests that it’s hard to find elite-level linebackers, but if you happen to find one, you’ve got a big leg up on the competition. So in my opinion, if you think you’ve found a rare do-it-all linebacker, he’s absolutely worth a top-10 pick.

Okay, let’s talk about Parson’s as a player now

Parsons only had one full year as a starter at the college level, but he led the Nittany Lions in tackles his freshman year, and sophomore tape is so damn impressive, that it has scouts falling all over each other. At Penn State, Parsons displayed his ability to...

Stop the run...

Drop into coverage...

Rush the passer...

Beat even the most athletic rushers to the sidelines (4:15 mark)

Much of his value comes from his insane athletic profile.

You want a big linebacker? You’ve got one. You want one with blazing straight line speed that also very clearly translates on film? You won’t find any better. And what does that allow NFL teams to do with him? As NFL Films legend Greg Cosell explains, everything.

“He’s got short-area quickness. He’s got sideline-to-sideline speed and range. He’s a really, as we like to call it, reactive athleticism. He’s got great reactive athleticism. There’s not much athletically that he can’t do. So it’s just a question of how you see him within the context of your defense.

I don’t know what the Eagles have in mind, maybe it’s a whole new world, but he could fit the Anthony Barr role, because Anthony Barr—obviously, the linebacker in Minnesota—who played linebacker in base, but was often—not all the time—used as a pass rusher in sub.”

We often speak to an offensive player’s versatility as simply a weapon that can be utilized in so many different ways. Parsons is the same for defense. When he’s out there, the offense is going to notice and they’ll have to adjust. In short, there’s very little not to like about Parsons as a prospect.

That being said, as much upside as Parsons has, there are still elements of his game that need to improve. Until he learns to use his hands better when taking on blockers, he will continue to find himself slightly out of position against the run. His coverage skills are more run-and-chase than instinctual right now and when the ball is in the air, he needs to find ways to secure the pick—he has zero career interceptions. In short, he’s not always going to win with his athleticism at the NFL level, so the rest of his game needs a certain amount of refinement.

The fit

Even better is the fit in Detroit. Way back in December Chris Spielman was asked to give one bit of optimism about the future of the team. His answer was telling.

“The defense that they’re going to play, you’re going to see it’s going to be different. It’ll look different. The players will look different as far as body types go, and it’s going to be a defense that, when we get there, will be built on speed just to match what the NFL is today.”

Parsons is that guy. He is the kind of player teams are turning to in order to defend the spread, speed offenses they oppose on a weekly basis.

And he fills a need not currently filled by anyone on the roster. Jamie Collins Sr. is projected to be a starter, but his history tells us that outside of the Patriots’ defensive scheme, he won’t be an efficient starter. Alex Anzalone is the other projected starter at linebacker, but he’s on a one-year deal and was essentially benched in New Orleans last year.

Parsons fits a huge need for this team’s future. He’s exactly the kind of player they’re looking to transition towards, and most scouts agree that he could be the exact rare talent that is so difficult to find at the linebacker position. If everything else clears, he could be the foundation to Detroit’s reformed defense for the next decade.