Why Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald and Dallas Cowboys’ Micah Parsons are indisputably elite

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  • Todd Archer

    CloseESPN Staff Writer

    • Covered NFL since 1997, Cowboys since 2003
    • Previously covered Bengals and Dolphins
    • Lives in Dallas area with his wife and two children
  • Sarah Barshop

    CloseESPN Staff Writer

    • Covered the Packers for ESPN Milwaukee
    • Marquette University graduate

Aaron Donald and Micah Parsons are two of the best defensive players in the NFL.

According to Caesars Sportsbook, Parsons (+180) entered Week 5 with the best odds to win Defensive Player of the Year, and Donald (+1500) was fourth.

They play different positions — Donald is a defensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, Parsons a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys — but they are always the first guy who gets noticed by opposing coaches when they break down the tape.

“You get off the bus, you better look around, because that’s the kind of player [Donald] is. He’s from Pittsburgh, so what do you expect?” said Cowboys coach and Pittsburgh native Mike McCarthy. “Yeah, he’s a game-wrecker. We recognize that.”

“The versatility, the explosiveness, the complete player,” said Rams coach Sean McVay when asked what stands out to him on film about Parsons. “[He] can play the line of scrimmage, off the line of scrimmage. I think [Cowboys defensive coordinator] Coach [Dan] Quinn does a great job of being able to kind of accentuate his skill sets, but [he’s] a playmaker in its purest form. He’s a guy that can affect the game in a lot of different ways, and they got a handful of guys like that already. He’s special.”

How well the Cowboys deal with Donald and the Rams deal with Parsons when they play against each other for the first time Sunday at Sofi Stadium (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) could determine who wins a game that could mean a lot later in the season when it comes to the NFC playoff chase.

Here’s a look at what makes Donald and Parsons special:

Illustration by ESPN

What they have done

Parsons: Last season, he became the first Cowboys’ rookie defender to garner first-team All-Pro honors and set a franchise record for sacks in a season by a rookie (13). He added 42 quarterback hurries, 20 tackles for loss and 64 tackles. As a result, he became the first Dallas defender to win the Rookie Defensive Player of the Year and finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting (Donald was third).

Aaron Donald v. Micah Parsons*

Donald Parsons
Sacks 19.5 (1st) 16.0 (6th)
Pressures 74 (3rd) 71 (T-4th)
TFL 24 (T-3rd) 26 (2nd)
*Since start of 2021 season

So far this season, Parsons has 14 tackles (13 solo) and four sacks along with a 33% pass rush win rate, six tackles for loss and nine quarterback hits. With a multi-sack game Sunday, Parsons would become the third player with at least six multi-sack efforts through 21 career games. Aldon Smith had seven and Joey Bosa six.

Donald: He has won three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, tied with Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt for the most all time. He has 100 sacks in 130 career games. Last season, Donald joined Taylor as the only players to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year multiple times, first-team All-Pro five times and win a Super Bowl. According to ESPN Stats & Information, since the start of last season, Donald has created 19.5 sacks, which is the most in the NFL. Parsons ranks sixth in that span with 16.0.

What makes them great

Parsons: He can line up anywhere, although he has spent more time on the defensive line than at linebacker this season (188 snaps to 52). That has allowed Quinn to create mismatches in their pass rush, putting Parsons on the weak link of the offensive line or against a tight end or running back.

Top Pass Rush Win Rates*

Player PRWR
Micah Parsons 29.6%
Myles Garrett 26.7%
Aaron Donald 25.3%
Jadeveon Clowney 25.1%
*Since start of 2021 season

After four games, Parsons is second in the league in pass rush win rate. Depending on the opponent’s strength, the Cowboys can use Parsons as a linebacker to help slow the run or as a pass-rusher to get after the quarterback. Last week against the Washington Commanders, he even lined up in the slot and blanketed receiver Terry McLaurin.

Donald: He “can do just about anything you ask him to do” on the field, Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. McVay said one thing he doesn’t believe enough people point out is that Donald still has kept up his production “in spite of the attention that he has.”

From 2017 to 2021, Donald was double-teamed 1,586 times, per ESPN’s metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. Despite that, he has had the highest pass rush win rate amongst interior defensive linemen over that span.

“To still be able to produce, to me, is what’s as amazing as anything else,” McVay said, noting that he believes part of the reason Donald is so great is because “nobody has higher standards for Aaron Donald than he does of himself.

“That, to me, is one of those separators where you’re just innately wired that way. I don’t think that’s something that you can teach or coach. I think you either are or you aren’t, and Aaron certainly is.”

Pennsylvania roots

“Pennsylvania’s the real deal,” Parsons said.

Parsons: He grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and excelled in just about everything he did. Parsons played on the varsity football team at Central Dauphin High School as a freshman. As a senior at Harrisburg High School, he played running back and defensive end. Parsons ran for 1,239 yards and 27 touchdowns and had 99 receiving yards with two touchdowns. He also had 17.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks, plus an interception.

As a true freshman at Penn State, he led the defense in tackles and did the same as a sophomore, before opting out of his final season due to COVID-19.



Aaron Donald discusses his motivation to come back instead of retiring after winning a Super Bowl.

Donald: He grew up in Pittsburgh, less than 30 minutes from where he played in college at the University of Pittsburgh.

Donald attended Penn Hills High School, where he was selected first-team All-State in his junior and senior seasons. In his final season, he had 63 tackles, including 15 for loss and 11 sacks. Donald played four seasons at Pitt, finishing with 29.5 sacks and 66 tackles for loss in his college career.

Donald and Parsons also share a wrestling background.

“I think wrestling is a huge indicator in helping with your career; understanding leverage, balance, control, body control,” Parsons said. “To this day, this offseason, I still go wrestle just to keep the muscle memory there and working hands.”

What opponents say about them

Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor on Parsons: “Micah Parsons is going to be in the conversation for one of the best, if not the best pass-rushers, just the way they can move him around. The way he can take advantage and bend. He’s a real problem, and they’ve got real good players behind him too.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Todd Bowles on Parsons: “He definitely qualifies as a game-wrecker. They use him inside. They use him outside. He can rush the passer from anywhere. He can blow up runs. He can cover. He does a lot of things; he causes a lot of problems. They cause a lot of mismatches for him. They get him in position where he’s on the back a lot, but he can beat linemen as well. He’s a true game-wrecker.”

2 Related

Cowboys All-Pro right guard Zack Martin on Donald: “People ask me that all the time. He’s good at everything. He’s extremely powerful. He’s quick. He’s got obviously natural leverage. He’s a gamer. I mean, he’s just good at everything.”

Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott on Donald: “He’s obviously the best player in the NFL on the defensive side. You turn the tape on, and in the first three plays, you don’t have to go any further than that. You’re seeing him making an impact on the game and interrupting offensive rhythm, and you’re just trying to get a play run and he’s blowing it up.”

Atlanta Falcons coach Arthur Smith on Donald: “He a great player. Probably one of the most dominant players in the last decade in this league. We got a ton of respect for him, but there’s a challenge every week and that’s what makes it fun.”

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford on Parsons: “Micah is a heck of a young player. He’s doing a great job in all the roles that they’re giving him, great motor. He’s got high-end skills, athletic ability, all of it. Really, really well-rounded, good football player.”

Donald on Parsons

“He’s a good football player. He makes a lot of plays. He’s a productive guy. Showed it last year. Had some success early this year. So he’s a good football player.”

Parsons on Donald

“My love for Aaron Donald is through the roof. I mean, he set the tone for defense. I mean, he’s dominated this league since his rookie year. I mean, he’s been an All-Pro since his rookie year. I mean, he’s kind of the standard of how you want to be when you’re coming into the league.

“I’m hoping I can keep following his type of footsteps and reach his level of greatness and success. I’m a huge fan of him. I hope I get his jersey in my man cave one day. I put him up there with the level of respect that I have for these quarterbacks. Like Aaron Donald is that type of guy. I know he’s almost out of his league and we’ve got to enjoy him while he’s here.”