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The definitive case for Cowboys Micah Parsons being the Defensive Player of the Year

Dallas Cowboys v Tennessee Titans
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

His sacks may have dropped off, but Micah Parsons is still worthy of the trophy.

For most of the year, many believed Micah Parsons was a lock for Defensive Player of the Year, and rightfully so. Anyone who watched the Cowboys play on a weekly basis would be unable to argue with a straight face that Parsons wasn’t head and shoulders above the rest of the league’s defenders with how dominant he is on a regular basis.

However, the narrative has changed in recent weeks with quite a few people (and betting markets) pivoting towards 49ers EDGE Nick Bosa. The rise in preference for Bosa has coincided with the 49ers’ defense-driven nine game win streak, as well as the assertion that Parsons - and the Cowboys’ pass rush as a whole - has fallen off in recent weeks.

That last part is rooted in the football viewing community’s resistance to embracing the idea that pressures matter more than sacks. An explanation for this idea can be found here, and even reached the football mainstream when Mike Smith - at the time, an outside linebackers coach for the Packers who is now the pass rush specialist for the Vikings - broke down why he thinks pressures are more important than sacks.

So, when the Cowboys stopped sacking the quarterback every other play, fans began to worry (or jump for joy, depending on rooting interests) that the pass rush had disappeared. Well, the Cowboys are still third in sacks - ahead of Bosa’s 49ers - and still lead the league in pressure rate. And while Parsons has just one sack in the last five games, he’s got 31 pressures over that span, including a career high 12 pressures in a single game. The only thing that has fallen off for Parsons and the Cowboys are sacks.

Parsons is still outperforming Bosa in important categories on a per-snap rushing basis. Bosa has four more sacks than Parsons, sure, but Parsons is only three pressures behind Bosa on the year. While that seems like it would favor Bosa, remember that the 49ers EDGE is playing that position full time, while Parsons alternates between the defensive line and linebacker.

So Bosa has three more pressures than Parsons, but he’s also played on 20 more pass rush reps than Parsons. So Parsons is actually recording a pressure on 37.1% of his pass rush reps, while Bosa is doing so at a 35.5% clip.

That’s before getting into the discrepancy between all pass rush reps and true pass sets, something which Pro Football Focus explains well here. In short, the true pass set stat looks to delineate between plays that would obscure pass rush ability - such as screens, play-action, and quarterback rollouts - and focus on plays where it’s truly the pass rusher trying to get upfield and affect the quarterback.

When we filter down to just true pass sets, Parsons once again has an advantage over Bosa. He has five more pressures on true pass sets and 16 more hurries than Bosa. On true pass sets only, Parsons is generating pressure 30.6% of the time, once again higher than Bosa’s 28.7% rate.

There’s also pass rush win rate, which measures how often a defender beats their block in 2.5 seconds or less. Parsons has led all defenders, regardless of position, for much of the year. He currently leads the league with a 31% pass rush win rate. Where is Bosa? His 22% pass rush win rate is eighth among all EDGEs, and only just ahead of his own teammate Samson Ebukam, who has a 21% win rate.

One reason why some in the analytics community don’t like pass rush win rate as much as other metrics is because it doesn’t account for other factors, like how often a player is getting double teamed. But a cross examination of pass rush win rate with double team rate once again reveals Parsons’ superiority to Bosa:

Seth Walder of ESPN hasn’t released an update since the start of December, which is evident by Parsons not being at the top of the leaderboard in pass rush win rate. Even then, though, he held a significant lead over Bosa in the stat. And, perhaps more telling, Parsons was being double teamed on nearly 30% of his pass rush reps, while Bosa was only being double teamed on 21% of his reps.

Another factor that tends to come up in discussions like these is how clutch a player is. How many times have we heard the gaudy game-winning drive totals cited for Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers? It’s a little harder to quantify with defenders, or any non-quarterbacks, but this statistic from Pro Football Focus offers some idea. Can anyone spot where Bosa is?

Finally, if we’re really looking to pick nits between these two players’ impacts, there’s also the fact that Bosa has cost his team more often when it comes to penalties. He’s been flagged 13 times this season, though four of them have either been declined or offset. That’s still nine accepted penalties from Bosa, while Parsons has just five and hasn’t been flagged in three weeks.

So, in conclusion, Parsons has a higher pressure rate, pressure rate on true pass sets, pass rush win rate, double team rate, and is vastly outperforming Bosa in clutch situations. The only stats where Bosa actually leads Parsons is in sacks and penalties.

If the NFL, for whatever reason, decided to make Parsons completely ineligible for the Defensive Player of the Year award, then Bosa would win easily. He’s been genuinely great this year and is one of the league’s best pass rushers. But when you really dive into the numbers and evaluate Parsons and Bosa on a level playing field, the answer is very clear.

Simply put, this one has been obvious all year. Let’s not outsmart ourselves now. Micah Parsons is the Defensive Player of the Year, and it’s not particularly close.


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