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You get to be a Rambo player: Cowboys first-round rookie Micah Parsons offers clarity on his role – USA TODAY

FRISCO, Texas — During the first rep of sled work, Micah Parsons says, he shook the rust off. Then?

“The second rep felt like: ‘OK, I’m back now,’” the Cowboys’ first-round draft selection said Friday afternoon. “That is how it is. We just wipe the dust off and act like it was brand new.”

As Parsons transitions to the Cowboys, his first organized team football practice in 17 months isn’t the only glimpse of new.

The Cowboys planned to prioritize cornerback with their top choice in the 2021 NFL draft until their desired prospects went off the board earlier than anticipated. Instead, Dallas traded down from pick 10 to 12 and landed a player the team felt filled less of a pressing need—but offered even more athleticism and skill, management said. Parsons, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy and owner Jerry Jones all have emphasized the Penn State product’s pass-rush ability. And yet, coaches’ vision for Parsons extends beyond the third-down blitzes they are drawing up.

Joining a linebacker room with fifth-year pro Jaylon Smith and 2018 first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch, Parsons is preparing to line up first and second downs as the middle linebacker.

“I’m just coordinating and being a dominant force,” Parsons said of the designation. “They wouldn’t put me there if they didn’t have a need at Mike. Mike linebacker, you get the chance to be a force. You get to be a Rambo player. You get to match up on running backs.

“Great chance to play in the box, and I think that is what I do best.”

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Parsons’ college skill set was versatile. Though he played just two seasons at Penn State before opting out of 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2019 All-American prided himself on the versatility to travel sideline to sideline and wreck a pocket. He collected 109 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles in 26 games (13 starts).

The Cowboys’ duo of Smith and Vander Esch excelled in 2018 before struggling to fit runs and plug gaps in 2019. Dallas’ 2020 defensive staff proposed a fix: Slide Smith to weakside linebacker and designate Vander Esch the de facto defensive quarterback at middle linebacker. Then Vander Esch broke his collarbone during the season opener. The headset returned to Smith’s helmet. The Cowboys, due to a multitude of schematic issues and talent deficiencies, allowed 158.8 rushing yards (second worst in league) and 29.6 points (fourth worst) per game. More change awaits with Dan Quinn taking over for Mike Nolan as coordinator.

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons holds a team jersey after the was chosen by the Dallas Cowboys with the 12th pick in the NFL football draft Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland.

With Vander Esch playing out the final year of his rookie contract and Smith’s team-leading 154 tackles masking the inconsistency his 2020 play often demonstrated, Parsons could beat out either for middle linebacker snaps. Would that sow discontent? Parsons said both teammates have already reached out to him, and he doesn’t expect any issues.

“At the end of the day, it’s all love and it’s all business,” Parsons said. “I don’t think there’s any love lost. I’m not trying to come in here and tell these guys what to do. I’m just trying to earn my place. I’ve got to find my place on this team and become a factor to even think about things like that.

“I’m just blessed to be able to learn after them and hopefully make my way to become a type of player like them or better.”

For now, Parsons is learning plenty by himself. He said he reviewed the Cowboys’ playbook and film for about an hour before bed Thursday night, refreshing his mind in the down time between meetings and practices. The down time in North Texas contrasts the whirlwind two weeks that followed the Cowboys selecting a linebacker who had publicly proclaimed long before the draft that he wanted to play for this exact franchise. Parsons flew with his family to Dallas for an introductory news conference the day after he was drafted and then back home to celebrate his son Malcolm’s third birthday. Ceremonies presenting him the key to hometown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and recognition from a state representative followed, as did family graduations and a California return to his orthodontist.

But on Friday, it was time for football. Parsons joined fourth-round LSU product Jabril Cox and Texas A&M’s undrafted Anthony Hines in linebacker drills led by senior defensive assistant George Edwards, who schooled the trio on leverage and hand placement, power and hooks. Parsons and fellow linebackers also joined ball security drills led by special teams coordinator John Fassel, each player charged with protecting the ball from coaches’ boxing glove-clad jabs.

The scenery, drills and terminology have advanced, but Parsons said he’s not worried about the transition. Playing football after an extended hiatus felt “extraordinary,” the 21-year-old said, noting the schematic threads he identified between his Penn State system and Cowboys playbook.

Jones watched Parsons gleefully from the sideline of practice, the owner/general manager gazing across his rookies’ progress from beneath his ballcap. Jones already envisions pass-rush possibilities, which the Cowboys will sorely need as early as their season opener against seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady in Tampa Bay.

“It’s gonna be a very compatible thing,” Jones said of Parsons joining Smith and Vander Esch. “The thing that I see that makes it unique is pressure. Pressure.

“I could see that really group being a big part of a plan for pressure.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

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