For a while there during the 2021 season, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys would end up with both the Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Micah Parsons, Dallas' do-everything first-year linebacker, was a shoo-in for the rookie honor, even staking a claim for the all-around prize, while cornerback Trevon Diggs, in his second season, was the league's preeminent ball-hawking defender. Alas, Diggs didn't receive a single vote for DPOY at the end of the year. Parsons, meanwhile, saw five of 50 votes, losing to Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt, but beating out the Rams' Aaron Donald.
Entering his second season, Parsons has high hopes for both himself and Diggs, a pair he thinks can rival that of Donald and his Los Angeles associate, Jalen Ramsey, in the near future.
"It's hard to say we're the best because I know we're young and we still make mistakes," Parsons told Jori Epstein of USA TODAY Sports. "It's hard to put us over Aaron Donald, the greatest defensive player in history, with Jalen Ramsey. So I won't do it yet.
"But I think we can become them or even better if we learn together and stick together."
Donald and Ramsey, reigning champions with the Rams, haven't played together for the entirety of their careers like Parsons and Diggs have in their short time together -- Ramsey spent his first three-plus seasons in Jacksonville -- but the two are inarguably one of the league's top defensive duos. Donald is a seven-time All-Pro, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-2010s team, and Ramsey, no scrub himself, is a three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. Both have signed market-setting contracts in the past two years.
But those two were joined this season as first-team All-Pros by Parsons and Diggs, neither of whom is over the age of 23. Parsons was top-six in sacks and tackles for loss and boasted the highest QB pressure percentage (21.1) of the Next Gen Stats era. The linebacker tallied 13 sacks despite rushing the passer on just 52.9 percent of defensive snaps (260th in the NFL).
On the back end, Diggs led the pros with 11 picks, the most by an NFLer since Lester Hayes in 1980 (13). The corner was dinged all season, though, for being a boom-or-bust ball hawk; he led the league in receiving yards allowed in coverage (1,016).
"That's what makes the player he is: his confidence, his willingness to go after the ball," Parsons said of Diggs. "I've seen a lot of corners not give up yards, but their teams aren't winning games. This league is about how many times you can get the ball back, and you get the ball back with turnovers. I'd take that any day of the week."
The linebacker went as far to say Diggs should've beaten out Watt (and himself) for the top defensive prize in 2021.
"Without a doubt I thought (Diggs) was the best defensive player in the league last year," Parsons told Epstein. "We've seen 20 sacks before. But in this era, we've never seen anyone reach 10-plus interceptions. So it's disrespectful to me, because I think he deserves all the credit in the world and deserves to be named a top-five corner if not the best corner in the league."
Parsons has not lacked for confidence this offseason; the Swiss Army 'backer has sought out the single-season sack record (23) as a goal in 2022 and said he wants at the very least 15 in his second season. So it's no surprise his belief in himself extends to his teammates.
For Parsons and Diggs to jump off the stat sheet and into Donald and Ramsey's star stratosphere, though, the two will need more than individual success. As the latter two have achieved with the Rams, Dallas' dynamic duo will have to elevate the Cowboys to a championship level before being considered the premier pairing of their era.