Cowboys training camp 2021: Battle at LB taking center stage with Micah Parsons seeing ‘off the charts’ volume

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© Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

While most of the NFL begins reporting to training camp this week, the Dallas Cowboys are already three practices in and things are heating up in Oxnard, California — the summer sun notwithstanding. With the battle at defensive back attempting to take center stage thanks to the signing of cornerback Kyron Brown and the expected signing of former first-round pick Malik Hooker this week, the once bare cupboard in the secondary is now anything but. For all of the attention that corps of players has gotten in the first few days of camp though, it remains true that the linebacker corps is where the biggest nukes are being launched.

Micah Parsons, the team’s first-round (12th-overall) pick, is taking camp by storm; and not simply as a traditional 4-3 linebacker. As predicted in CBS Sports’ scouting report of Parsons following the pick, the Cowboys are also leaning heavily on Parsons’ ability to rush the passer — considering he was once a defensive end before converting to LB at Penn State. Parsons’ volume of reps in camp has been “off the charts,” according to head coach Mike McCarthy, who also deemed it “too much” and vowed to be more cognizant of the rookie’s workload between now and his regular season debut against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That’s not yet materialized though, considering Parsons was still seen running from one drill as a 4-3 linebacker to another as a 3-4 edge rusher in competition with All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, and then back to the previous drill to rinse and repeat. 

But to Parsons’ credit, he’s not only taking everything the Cowboys throw at him and more — he’s thriving.

“Every day he comes up with something new that he wants to do with me,” Parsons told media of how Dan Quinn operates in practice, and specifically toward him, as someone projected to be a key player going forward. “I don’t take it as a bad thing. I take it as this is an honor, because that’s how much he believes in me and my talents and what I can bring to this team and defense. 

“Whether it’s the playbook or life, he’s checking on me every day. I’m just taking it like he really believes in me and sees me doing great things this year. … He’s hard to impress. I don’t think he’s ever satisfied. 

“He always wants you to keep getting better. That’s the kind of coach that you want to be under. Each day we’re finding ways for me to get a little better at something. Trying to focus in on that. 

“Trying to make me an all-around player.”

The operable adjective here being “all-around,” because Parsons will not be utilized as a traditional LB in a Quinn scheme that will see him move between all three linebacker roles and edge rusher. Of course, this applies pressure on veteran linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch to step up and match serve, as does the presence of rookie fourth-round pick Jabril Cox and a potential sleeper in undrafted free agent Anthony Hines III. Vander Esch began blowing the doors off of Quinn’s expectations as early as OTAs, the newly-installed defensive coordinator labeling Vander Esch as “a man on a mission’ heading into 2021 — his contract year in lieu of the Cowboys passing on his fifth-year option.

“The injuries are way behind me so I’m not even dealing with that anymore,” Vander Esch said in early June. “I’ve been training and working out and trying to put more body armor on my frame to make sure that I do give myself the best chance possible to stay healthy. Not that that solves all your problems because you can’t help someone rolling up on you or doing anything like that, but you can strengthen yourself and give yourself a little bit more body armor to protect yourself in any way possible. I feel like I did that this offseason.”

And Quinn has Vander Esch doing more work at WILL (weakside) again, where he’s doing damage versus the struggles he had at MIKE (middle) in his one and only season under now-ousted defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.

“I’m going back to pretty much to my old role from the first two years,” Vander Esch said, before admitting he wasn’t a fan of the 2020 role change. “Which I think is what it should have been last year, but, I think it’s going to be a lot more familiar to what we were used to doing, which is running and hitting and making plays and having fun.

” … Yeah [the vision for Quinn’s defense is] very clear. Things are cut-and-dried — his intensity and his involvement, I think, is a total game-changer. He’s right in there with us, running plays and walkthroughs and if it ain’t right, he’ll tell us. And it’s like, I didn’t like this today or I did like this today. 

And then there’s Smith, who isn’t technically entering a contract year but might realistically be, when considering the team would save millions toward their cap by moving on from him ini 2022, and that’s money that could be funneled toward potentially keeping Vander Esch around. It’s clear the future of both Smith and Vander Esch are tethered to each other, making for a reality that a divorce from one next offseason will make it easier to retain the other.

And, as such, it’s paramount both deliver a groundbreaking season to make the decision difficult for the Cowboys front office.

“The biggest thing with [Dan Quinn] coming in is just letting us know that he was going to allow everybody to use their strengths and put everybody in their position to display their strengths,” Smith told media. “And guys like myself and Micah the ability to pass rush, the ability to blitz and get after the guys, the ability to run sideline to sideline. It’s just something that I’m looking forward to.” 

And he’s not naive to what Parsons brings to the table, either.

“Yeah, the biggest thing is about being ready when your name is called,” Smith added. “And [Quinn is] preaching that: just being in shape, and then doing whatever it takes to win. That’s our mentality this year. … I think [Parsons] has done a great job. Not only with Micah but the other guys.

” … I have enjoyed working with him. We got a ton of competition at the linebacker position. Micah has stood out in the first two practices. The competition is real. 

“We are working on difference packages. We want to make sure we can utilize all those guys as best we can.”

Adding to the degree of difficulty is the presence of Keanu Neal, signed specifically with the goal of mostly converting from safety to linebacker, helping to fill the void left by a retiring Sean Lee. That was pre-draft though, which is to say having Neal floating near the top of the LB depth chart now adds to Smith, Vander Esch, Parsons, Cox and Hines, but also with a promising talent in Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard; although Bernard will lose a bit of camp time due to a hamstring injury suffered in the first practice. 

What will truly make it all that much more interesting is in how Quinn will utilize Tarell Basham, a free agent who joined the team this offseason as an edge rusher but can also take on work as a 4-3 linebacker. The latter makes him a good insurance option at the very least and, at the most, creates that much more competition for LB reps if someone isn’t performing how Quinn and McCarthy want. 

Parsons is commanding the limelight with both his draft status and play in practice, Vander Esch looks better than even his best form in the past (and healthier than ever), Smith is at least keeping pace and Neal is pushing to ensure he’s on the field as often as possible. Mix in the young talent behind them who also want onto the 53-man roster and the Cowboys will not only have a difficult decision on who stays and who goes (in both the short- and longterm), but also in who plays where and how often.

It’s a great problem to have at the position, and one the Cowboys have been chasing for years now.