Welcome to our new “Better Pro” series, where we’ll try to predict how one Penn State player will compare in the NFL to a Nittany Lion who came before him and excelled playing the same position in the pros.
There’s no doubt Micah Parsons is considered a stud prospect and a potential superstar in the NFL. The linebacker opted out of the 2020 season, which was delayed by COVID, and he really didn’t need to play another season at Penn State to enhance his NFL stock. Parsons was a consensus All-American as a sophomore in 2019, and he capped his terrific season with a brilliant showing in the Cotton Bowl.
OK, so who do we compare Parsons to? Penn State obviously has had some excellent linebackers over the past 20 years, with several going on to have outstanding NFL careers.
But which former Lion has been the best NFL linebacker this century? This question in and of itself brings up an excellent discussion, because even though the answer should be pretty obvious, it’s actually not.
Just take a look at the voting in my Twitter poll below:
Off the top of your head and without checking their stats, who do you think has been the best NFL linebacker from Penn State this century?
— Cory Giger (@CoryGiger) December 29, 2020
At the time I’m writing this, Sean Lee leads the fan poll with 32.3 percent, while NaVorro Bowman is second with 29.5.
Look, Lee has had an excellent NFL career, and he plays for America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. He has been a high-profile player for a decade, making a bunch of big-time plays right there on TV for so many Americans to see.
Lee also was always a very popular player at Penn State. So it stands to reason that if you combine his popularity among NFL fans and the fact that he’s had an impressive NFL career, many PSU fans will automatically pick him as the best NFL linebacker in recent memory.
But that’s wrong.
Bowman was the best
NaVorro Bowman is the right answer.
Bowman, who played from 2010-17, was selected first-team All-Pro FOUR TIMES (2011, ’12, ’13 and ’15) for the 49ers! He also was a three-time Pro Bowler (2012, ’13, ’15).
Maybe a lot of Penn State fans didn’t realize that or weren’t fully aware of just how good Bowman was as a pro, but FOUR first-team All-Pro honors is amazing.
Lee has been first-team All-Pro just once (2016). He probably could have earned more such honors had he been able to stay healthy, but that has always been an issue for him as he’s suffered several injuries with the Cowboys.
Neither LaVar Arrington nor Paul Posluszny was ever first-team All-Pro during their impressive careers.
Posluszny was a very consistent player who did stay healthy during his 10-year career, but he only made one Pro Bowl (2013) and was never All-Pro.
Arrington will always be beloved for his electrifying play at Penn State, and he was very good in the NFL, earning two second-team All-Pro honors (2001, ’03) and three Pro Bowl nods (2001-03) before injuries caused him to drop off.
So, if we’re keeping score, it’s Bowman 4 first-team All-Pro nods, the other three combined 1.
Bowman was considered the very best linebacker in the NFL for at least one or even two of his seasons in the early part of this decade. He won the NFL’s Butkus Award in 2013, then Carolina’s Luke Kuechly took over the title of best NFL linebacker after that.
No other PSU product has captured the NFL Butkus Award, which was established in 2008.
Lee very well could have become the NFL’s best linebacker at some point in his career, but the injuries prevented that. He’s still been outstanding and has played longer than Bowman, but Bowman at his very best was better than Lee, or Posluszny or Arrington in the NFL.
Why doesn’t Bowman get the recognition he deserves, even from Penn State fans? That’s a good question, because the guess here is that fans would pick him behind Lee, Posluszny, Arrington and maybe even Dan Connor if they had to pick their favorite Penn State linebackers from earlier this century.
Still, there’s no denying that Bowman was fantastic in the NFL for a four-year period. He even overcame a gruesome knee injury in the 2013 playoffs that caused him to miss the 2014 season, then he bounced back to be a first-team All-Pro in 2015.
The guess here is that because Bowman played his entire NFL career on the West coast with the 49ers and one season with the Raiders, that he may have been out of sight, out of mind for a lot of Penn State fans. Whereas Lee has always been front and center on TV with America’s Team.
If you want to compare numbers, here ya go.
How will Parsons compare?
If we all now can agree that Bowman set the standard for PSU linebackers in the NFL this century, now we can ask how Parsons will compare.
This much is clear: Parsons has a chance to be phenomenal, if he can stay healthy and live up to his potential.
Parsons is the best tackling linebacker I’ve seen at Penn State since I started covering the team in 2006. I’m not sure he ever missed a tackle last season, when he was an All-American, and he made great strides last year with regards to taking good routes to the ball.
If Parsons got his hands on a runner, that guy was going down. That’s just all there was to it.
The scary part, as was mentioned numerous times the past two years, is that Parsons was still really learning how to play linebacker while at Penn State. He was a defensive end in high school and switched to linebacker once he got to college.
There were times when Parsons would get lost in coverage a bit or take a bad route, but again, that was all part of his learning curve at the position.
Parsons might need one season to get acclimated to being an NFL linebacker, and he’ll make some mistakes. But you can count on him being a sure-handed tackler, and when he does figure it all out at the position, he’ll have a chance to be the best in the league for multiple years.
Here’s a good draft profile on Parsons from The Draft Network.
Micah Parsons projects as a dynamic impact player at the NFL level. Parsons, who elected to opt-out of the 2020 college football season, has two seasons of high-impact play on his film resume and his impact was only further affirmed as the Penn State defense fell apart without him on the field for the 2020 season. Parsons, who was a prized recruit as a pass rusher coming out of high school, is still ironing out some of finer points of play processing on the second level but his freakish combination of size and explosiveness allow him to explode and drive into gaps when he sees the play develop and as a result he’s a persistent winner of beating ball carriers and blockers to the spot between the tackles. Parsons is an impact player on third downs, which significantly boosts his value to pro teams and masks some of the inexperiences of transitioning to stack linebacker. He’s a dynamic blitzer and has the versatility to rush against offensive linemen and claim victories to get home to the quarterback. Parsons has illustrated an incredible level of pure instinct for the game thus far and his ability to navigate the line of scrimmage and rip at the football to create turnovers is best accentuated in an aggressive front defense that will task him with playing forward early in downs and not ask him to make flat footed reads before scraping and flowing to the ball.
Ideal Role: Long-term starting MIKE Linebacker (Could benefit from playing stacked OLB early in career)
Scheme Fit: Multiple Front, Blitz Heavy, Attack Defense
I spent a lot of time praising Bowman, in large part because I believe he’s always been overlooked by many Penn State fans. But four first-team All-Pro selections was fantastic.
Parsons, though, has a good chance to be even better. That’s a daunting challenge, putting pressure on a young guy to say that he will become the NFL’s best linebacker for at least part of his career.
But Parsons has that kind of potential, and more. He’ll be selected in the top 10 of the draft, and if he can stay healthy and lives up to his potential, Parsons will be an NFL superstar for the next decade.