With the 2021 Senior Bowl kicking off down in Mobile, AL, the NFL offseason and pre-draft process are in full swing. While this offseason will once again be an extremely odd process for the Denver Broncos due to the pandemic, the league must trudge on.
Finding a stroke of some normalcy in unprecedented times, the 'Godfather' of NFL mock drafts — ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. — officially released his first mock of 2021. With Denver's many pressing needs at right tackle, (potentially) quarterback, and almost every level on the defensive side of the ball, it will be hard to perfectly predict which direction new GM George Paton will go with his first draft in Denver (assuming the Broncos’ hold on to the No. 9 overall pick).
Alas, in Kiper’s, mock there are no trades being projected, so the Broncos must pick from what prospects are currently available at nine overall. With the ninth pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the Broncos select:
9. Denver Broncos
Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
Is pass-rusher Von Miller going to return to the Broncos? What about free-agent safety Justin Simmons? This defense could look very different in Year 3 under Vic Fangio. I thought about a cornerback here, but I see linebacker as the bigger position to upgrade, and Parsons could play inside or outside. I see him more as an inside linebacker for a 3-4 defense, but his versatility would be a fit for any type of defense. Parsons, who opted out of the 2020 season, was a force at Penn State in 2019, with 109 tackles, five sacks and four forced fumbles. He has some upside as a pass-rusher.
In the end, Kiper predicts the Broncos to select the Penn State linebacker to give a much needed shot in the arm to a second-level defense missing any true difference makers.
Off the board before Denver was even 'on the clock' at No. 9 overall, picks 1-8 went as follows:
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence | QB | Clemson
- New York Jets: DeVonta Smith | WR | Alabama
- Miami Dolphins (via HOU): Ja’Marr Chase | WR | LSU
- Atlanta Falcons: Zach Wilson | QB | BYU
- Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell | OT| | Oregon
- Philadelphia Eagles: Jaylen Waddle | WR | Alabama
- Detroit Lions: Justin Fields | QB | Ohio State
- Carolina Panthers: Trey Lance | QB | North Dakota State
With all of the 'Big Four' quarterbacks off the board, and not a singular defensive player getting picked, Paton and his staff would have their choice of fits at No 9 overall. This is very much likely an indictment on the overall 'upper tier' defensive talent at the top of the 2021 class.
This class lacks an obvious blue-chip edge rusher or defensive lineman, and the two cornerbacks vying for top-10 consideration, and the linebacker that Kiper mocked to Denver, each have many unanswerable questions. If Denver isn’t interested in picking a quarterback in the top-10 this year, it likely would be far better off seeing if it can trade down as the board currently projects.
Rundown on Parsons
There is no doubt that Parsons is a freak among freaks at the linebacker position. Relatively new to the mental demands of the stack linebacker position, he was often slow to diagnose or guess wrong during his 2019 season. He opted out of the 2020 college season.
This slow read-and-react would lead to some vulnerabilities for the defensive backfield from time-to-time, but more often than not, Parsons’ incredible combination of size and athleticism was able to overcome his lack of experience at the linebacker position. Furthermore, Penn State didn’t ask him to do anything too complicated and simply let their incredible athlete be an athlete. Sometimes it truly is that simple.
For a Vic Fangio defense, though, the complexities are important. No defensive mind switches up points of emphasis and defensive game-plans on a week-to-week basis like Fangio, so having the linebacker room full of mentally prepared players is a must.
If Denver did add Parsons, Fangio would undoubtedly scheme around his talent and try to cover up his weaknesses, much like the coach does with Alexander Johnson — who struggles in space and is instead asked to rush the passer fairly often in obvious pass downs. And why not put your players in positions to do what they do best? Still, for the ninth overall pick, those deficiencies add risk.
On top of the questions in regards to Parsons’ mental acumen to play the position, which is one of the positions that requires the most intelligence to play on defense (along-side safety), there is also the question of positional value. Historically, NFL teams have nearly the exact same hit-rate drafting linebackers on Day 2 of the draft as they do Day 1.
With Paton’s emphasis on analytics, taking a stack linebacker at N. 9 overall does not truly play the value game. Parsons would need to be a perennial All-Pro to be worth a top-10 draft pick at linebacker, and that is a difficult expectation given the natural hit-or-miss rate of prospects in general.
Cornerback would be the safer position to target for Denver if the board fell as Kiper had it, but the top two prospects at the position have questions. Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley is relatively new to the position which shows on tape with injury and tackling concerns. Further complicating his evaluation was his decision to opt-out in the 2020 college football season (like Parsons).
Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II is a super safe prospect, but he doesn’t have the twitch or explosiveness to be a 'top-10 pick at corner regardless of draft class' and is likely artificially being pushed up due to the lack of defensive talent at the top of this class. Surtain also may not be the best fit for what Fangio has liked from his cornerbacks historically, not showing elite click-and-close and giving up separation too easily when he isn’t afforded the opportunity to play press. Both make sense at No. 9, but neither are slam dunks for Denver.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in regards to drafting Parsons, are the plumes of smoke surrounding him and the questions surrounding his character. From his multiple assault charges filed against him while at College Station.
From NFL analyst Bucky Brooks, who has known Parsons since high school, questioning Micah’s maturity and whether or not the 'light' will ever click on for him at the next level, many of these concerns surrounding Parsons really line up with recent uber-talented but questionable character linebacker Rueben Foster.
Parsons has massive upside, but it is really hard to preach culture from one side of one’s mouth only to draft Parsons with so many red flags surrounding him. To wit:
Parsons is an absolute freak athlete and could rather easily wind up as one of the best linebackers in football given his athletic skill-set. There are questions about him in coverage given how rarely the Nittany Lions asked him to drop into space, but using Parsons as huge athlete in short area zones to pursue the football and add someone who can cover ground incredibly quickly would be a nice addition to the defense.
Parsons has some hybrid ability where he can play some stand-up edge in different defensive looks, something that Fangio has liked to use opposite a power edge rusher during his time coordinating defenses. However, questions arise watching Parsons’ tape from a mental standpoint and the nature of the off-ball linebacker position has been devalued (seriously, you can find good to great linebackers Day 2 every year).
While linebacker isn’t quite to the level of being devalued like the running back position, it’s definitely one teams shouldn’t prioritize in Round 1 over offensive tackle, cornerback, edge rusher, and of course quarterback, and the ample off-field concerns surrounding Parsons make him far from a slam dunk pick for the Broncos at No. 9 overall.
The talent and upside are unquestionable tantalizing, but this league has chewed up and spit out more incredibly talented players that had character concerns than can even be remembered. Parsons is a risk, and not one I am sure I would be willing to make.