2021 NFL Draft Scouting Report
2018: 82 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 FF
2019: 109 tackles, 14 TFL, 5 sacks, 5 PD, 1 FR, 4 FF
We never go too long without a Penn State linebacker lighting up college football, and in 2018, Parsons became the next in a long-line of Nittany Lion tackling machines. As a true freshman, the Harrisburg-native exploded onto the scene with an 82-tackle season that earned him Freshman All-American honors. Still, Parson's sophomore campaign proved to be his best in Happy Valley. He not only surpassed the 100-tackle mark but also ranked sixth in the nation in fumbles forced per game.
That performance featured his name on All-American lists across the country, prompting many to proclaim him as one of the top defenders in the 2021 draft class. Like many of the country's top players heading into the 2020 season, Parsons chose to opt out and prepare for his NFL future. Many looked forward to seeing how the junior would improve on his 2019 showing, but Parsons has been preparing for the draft since early-August and should impress in the pre-draft process.
There's a lot to like about Parsons, and it starts with his build. At six feet, three inches, and near 250 pounds, he has a thick frame, and his long arms are an added bonus. All of this works in his favor as a tackler. We often see him drive through opponents thanks to that imposing size, and when he gets the ball-carrier wrapped up, it’s over. Also, it can’t be understated that these measurables can help in coverage as well, although he needs to further develop in this area. Those long arms should aid him in pressing or redirecting receivers. Tight ends aren’t going to bully him or body him out. Running backs may get some separation, but his reach will force quarterbacks to be on the mark. Parson’s also has the potential to be a big obstacle in zone coverage. We also see his reach show up when Penn State rushes him off the edge or on blitzes.
Another area that really shows up on tape is his short-area quickness. Parsons changes direction with ease for a player his size. It's tough for linemen to get their hands on him, thanks to the sudden bursts he uses to get around them. Also, his instincts at the position are excellent, and when that combines with his ability to quickly explode into action, Parsons can be extremely disruptive. As I mentioned, he still has some room to develop in coverage, but this is going to be an asset in that area as well. Parsons did see a lot of time flexed out at Penn State, and there were a few examples of that quick burst on shorter routes where he was able to minimize separation out of the break.
Getting back to his instincts, Parsons has the ability to put teams behind the chains when he's lined up in the box. It's never easy to know how much of it is a feel for the game and how much of it is his understanding of blocking schemes, but it allows him to get going before blockers are in position to stop him. The angles of pursuit he takes are usually spot-on as well, and he can accelerate well for a player his size. I'll also add that putting him in front of players that can demand double-teams just makes him that much more dangerous. This is another reason I think he can develop into a good coverage linebacker. When it's in front of him, Parsons can spring into action quickly, and as he sees NFL routes by running backs and tight ends, those instincts will start to kick in.
Areas for Improvement
I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised to see him struggle to get off blocks with his build. Those long arms are an asset in this department, but we don't always see him escape blockers as well as you'd think. Part of the problem can be attributed to Parsons' approach prior to the contact. I'd like to see him be more aggressive and attack the blocker once he's identified him. That short-area quickness could help him get into the blocker quickly, and a violent punch followed by the proper handwork to disengage will finish the task. At times, Parsons also chooses to try and bounce around blockers, and that's usually not a good idea. He's big and physical enough to fight through the traffic, and that's what needs to happen.
I've alluded to his potential in coverage a number of times, and while I believe the future-upside in this area, Parsons is not there yet. Once again, I'd love to see his long arms show up in this area, especially when it comes to rerouting players in the first five yards. Timing is such an essential part of NFL passing attacks, and when players get off track early in their route, it can take them out of the play. Also, while his instincts against the run are terrific, I'd like to see them show up more in this area. This starts in the film room and on the practice field, and like anything, the more times a player sees routes, the quicker they start recognizing them.
The physical traits and production alone jump out and combined with the kind versatility he has shown at the collegiate level. I believe he has a strong chance to be the first defender off the board. It's one thing to be an instinctive, active linebacker, but when you mix in that he's seen time lined up in the box, flexed out in the slot, and on the edge, it makes him scheme versatile. I believe he's best lined up inside, but so many defensive coordinators are trying to mix their fronts in this era of football, and he fits with that objective.
Parsons plays the run well, and he can get after the quarterback as a true rusher or as a bliltzer. I've even seen him used in stunts and twists as well. As an evaluator, you also have to love the energy he brings to a unit. Every time he makes a play, it's like the defense livens up that much more. It's not trash talk. It's just a positive vibe that gets everyone around him excited to line up and take the next snap. We've heard similar remarks from coaches and teammates about him having that kind of effect off the field as well, and Parsons should bring an element of leadership to his team on day one. I'd honestly be shocked if he got out of the top five picks.
Coming out of Alabama, Rolando McClain was a similar player, although I think Parsons' frame is a little thicker. That is the first player that came to mind when I saw him as a freshman, and I've seen several others reference McClain in relation to Parsons. McClain was instinctive and a sure tackler. He also had room to grow in coverage, but there were traits that he eventually used to his advantage to improve as a pro.
Physically, I think these two really are similar players, but McClain obviously ran into personal issues once he got into the NFL. If that doesn't happen, I think we are talking about a player that's had a terrific career, and we even saw him get back to stardom in his brief return to football with the Dallas Cowboys. Considering Parsons is well-respected as a terrific guy on and off the field, I think he is that much more likely to live up to the expectations people had for McClain when he was drafted in the top 10 by the Raiders.
- vs. Pittsburgh (9-14-19)
- vs. Michigan (10-19-19)
- at Minnesota (11-9-19)
- at Ohio State (11-23-19)
- vs. Memphis (12-28-19)
Notes from Film
- Tall player with good arm length and somewhat of a thick frame for a linebacker. His build makes him an imposing player when it comes to taking on blocks and securing tackles. Those long arms make the tackle all but a guarantee when he gets them around the ball carrier.
- It may be redundant to say that a Penn State linebacker plays with terrific instincts, but Parsons does exactly that. There are some impressive examples of him reading his key and jumping into action quicker than his opponent can get into position to get him blocked.
- Love the versatility he shows. Terrific player against the run, whether on the play or back side. Shows the ability to come off the edge as a pass rusher, but also a capable blitzer from his natural linebacker position. In coverage, he looks much more comfortable against running backs, running shorter routes that stay in front of him as opposed to carrying a receiver down the field. Still, he has a skillset that will allow him to improve in that area with work.
- A trait that will certainly be noticed by scouts is his short-area quickness. It shows up in quick, subtle bursts to avoid block attempts once he's spotted the ball carriers path. There are plenty of instances when he appears to be locked on to the runner with a blocker closing down on him. Then, at the last second, we see a burst of quickness to avoid the block before shooting towards the ball-carrier. I have to imagine he leaves some blockers scratching their heads about missing him.
- It appears he plays multiple linebacker positions for the Nittany Lions. He may always be playing the same position, but the responsibilities vary between that of an outside and inside player. Most of the time, he is the Mike and more of a scrape and flow player. However, there are also reps he is flexed out over a slot to jam them, and others where I see him as the take-on backer forcing the play back inside. These are outside linebacker alignments and actions, and it makes me all the more confident in his versatility.
- Love his ability to accelerate to the ball. Whether on the backside or as a spy on the quarterback, there is no doubt, he can run with most players in the backfield. On top of that, he gets going quickly. Great example on his sack/forced-fumble against Memphis. Saw his crease and was through it and on the quarterback before he could respond. There are also plenty of examples of him playing sideline-to-sideline. His range is terrific.
- Teams that love to blitz their linebackers in a variety of ways are going to love him. His speed and length are tremendous assets in this regard, and he has a good idea of how to get low and turn the corner off the edge. I also love his timing on stunts and twists, as well as his angles.
- His ability to take on blocks is probably his least desirable trait. There are acceptable times to use quickness to avoid blocks but there are others where you wish he'd attack the blocker and lower his shoulder on him to knock him backwards or at least clog up the running lane. He also doesn’t get off blocks as well you'd like with his size and length. Could be better with his hands prior to the blocker getting to him in that regard.
- The change-of-direction ability is definitely impressive as well. He can go from his back pedal to chasing a crossing route quickly. He can shoot a gap before straightening out down the line of scrimmage with ease. I have to imagine he is going to dazzle teams in any form of cone drills or positional work he sees.
- I'll say this, last year watching Isaiah Simmons, there was a constant desperation to be involved in the play, no matter how far away he was from it. I don't see it from Parsons. He trusts his teammates to make the play and motors down at times when he believes the play will end before he gets there. I don't care for this. When there is a play to be made, he is relentless but when he doesn't believe that is the case, it's a different story.
- Lined up flexed over the tight end quite a bit against Ohio State. The Buckeyes went with an empty backfield often against them and Penn State chose to put him with tight end as opposed to leave him in the box. Good sign that they trust him in coverage.
- One thing I've noticed on each of his first four tapes is they sub him out for full series, sometimes multiple times a game. Parsons is the best player on that roster, on either side of the ball. Not sure what would make them take him off the field, but it will likely come up during interviews.
- Poor decision to jump a bubble route against Memphis. They are in zone coverage and him abandoning his left the slant wide open for a big play. A quarterback's eyes can be as dangerous as his arm or feet, and the burned Parsons on that one.
Scouting Video Courtesy of Penn State Films