There’s been a succession of players in the middle of Bill Belichick’s defenses who could be described as consummate professionals.
Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower are at the top of the list, but we could go on. First one in, last one out types. Never mind putting them in charge of the defense, if you had to put them in charge of your kids for the weekend, you’d feel fine doing that too.
The Patriots like a little bit of gravitas there. A level of seriousness. Which brings us to Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. He is widely considered one of the 10 most talented players in this draft. Smart. Productive. Absurdly athletic.
But the persistent, “Yeah, but…” that’s come up around him is about his maturity level. A lot of it seems exceedingly benign. In high school, he responded negatively on social media to a blatantly racist photo shared by classmates. Sensible. But he was days later accused by his high school of “inciting a riot” in the cafeteria because he allegedly yelled “Gun!” while police were present. Parsons father said he was yelling to a teammate. When he was suspended by the school, Parsons transferred.
His recruitment to Penn State was a little bumpy. He committed then decommitted and went to Ohio State on an official visit. While the recruitment process was still ongoing at OSU, he tweeted critically about Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett. While at Penn State, Parsons was part of a group of players who allegedly hazed a teammate.
Speaking last month, Parsons said, “Obviously, people have concerns about things that came up but at the end of the day, I was a kid. I was 17, 18. We all made mistakes when we were 17, 18. I’m not going to let it control or dictate the person I am now. … Everyone’s gonna learn and grow. I’m pretty sure y’all aren’t making the same mistakes when you were 17, 18.”
Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player who’s currently an analyst for NFL.com, was on our Patriots Talk Podcast recently. He’s known Parsons since the linebacker was in high school. This was his full appraisal of Parsons.
“The No. 1 thing when you think about Patriots players (is smarts),” said Brooks. “(Parsons) graduated from Penn State in three years. And the Patriots have always had a huge interest in college graduates because it speaks to the maturity, the intelligence and those things.
“When you turn on the tape and you watch him, he has that nastiness that you want to have on the inside. Part of what made the Patriots great going back to the early part of their dynasty was they always had that nastiness and that thump to them, particularly at the second level. I know and love Willie McGinest, but there is a deep, dark side to Willie McGinest that comes out on the field. The Patriots had multiple guys like that. … When they have won and won at a high level, they had enforcers and impact players. Micah Parsons fits that because he not only is a solid second-level defender sideline-to-sideline, he can blitz, he can thump, he can make plays, he has a knack for being around it.
“The only thing that I would worry about a little bit, and maybe this is because I’m a little too close to the flame, when people talk about the character, … he has a tinge of immaturity about him. But there’s a lot of players that come into the league like that. As a player though, I don’t think there’s any denying that he can play. And I think some of the stuff that has come out, the character stuff, is a little overblown and I think we kind of underestimated how good he is. Just watch the tape. That is a top-five player so if the Patriots are able to get him at 15, he’s a difference-maker.”
Brooks is one of several analysts who’ve ticketed Parsons to the Patriots in their mock drafts.
The question for the Patriots, obviously, is how comfortable they feel with the entire Parsons package in the middle of their defense. What kind of leader is he? What kind of tone does he set? Do they envision him as a successor to Hightower? Do they feel the professionalism of the veterans he’d be surrounded by – Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley, etc. – and the coaching he’d get from someone like Mayo will help make Parsons’ transition to the NFL smooth and simple?
I asked Belichick last week how off-field makeup and a player’s potential locker room fit plays into their decision-making. Would concerns make the Patriots less likely to draft a player as high as 15?
“Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what round you take the player in. Once he walks in the door, he’s a New England Patriot player,” said Belichick. “He puts on the uniform and goes out there and competes. It doesn’t matter if he’s in the second round or fifth round. That doesn’t matter once he’s on your team. So, whatever his positives and negatives are, whatever he brings to the table, whatever weaknesses you think he might have or all the other things you brought up, whatever those things are or aren’t, they’re the same no matter where that individual player gets selected.
“Ultimately you want to maximize the value of the picks, but the player is the player,” he added. “Whatever his strengths and weaknesses are, that’s what they are and you try to put a value on that. … If you get into a later round you might want to take a shot on a player, a Julian Edelman-player that’s maybe, you know there’s some development in that player because he’s going to play a position he hasn’t played before or whatever the circumstances happen to be. But, as far as the other parts of it – the work ethic and the aptitude and character and so forth, commitment to football and that type of thing – those are part of every conversation and every draft pick.”
What I glean from that answer is that, if the Patriots believe Parsons is a player they’d have no issue adding, they will take him if he’s the best player on the board when they pick. It’s not like they would consider him too immature at 15 but acceptably immature at 46. At least that’s my read on that.
Will Parsons get to 15? And will the Patriots make the leap if he does? We’ll find out in less than a week.