FRISCO, Texas –Dan Quinn's first visit with Parsons last spring might have provided a lasting message for the rest of the rookie linebacker's career.
"When I first met Q, he said, 'I know you're going to be a really good football player, but what I care about is what type of person you are, how you treat your teammates, how you act in practice, how you look in walkthroughs,'" Parsons reflected in late December. "He said, 'I know you're going to be good on Sunday, but I want to see how good you are during the week."
Parsons did impress Quinn, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator, with his work ethic and study habits. After Parsons posted two sacks and a forced fumble in a Dec. 12 win at Washington, Quinn said the rookie texted him the next morning with a message: "What do we got this week?"
"Hey man, I'm still grading this game. I'll get back to you," Quinn texted back.
Partly out of necessity due to injuries on the defensive line, Parsons emerged as one of the league's most versatile defensive players in his first year in the league. In Week 2, when DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot and Randy Gregory landed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, Quinn moved the 12th overall draft pick to full-time defensive end against the Chargers.
Quinn found creative ways to maximize Parsons' strengths as an off-the-ball linebacker and situational pass rusher. Parsons would moonlight between positions all season and post a rookie franchise record 13.0 sacks. He became the 12th Cowboys rookie to make the Pro Bowl and the first Cowboys rookie defensive player on The Associated Press' first-team All-Pro squad.
It's a remarkable start to a career. The question now is, what's next for the 22-year-old?
Parsons' skills are clear. He's 6-foot-3, 250 pounds with 4.3 speed. He can beat a premier NFL left tackle off the edge or drop 50 yards and help cover a receiver downfield.
More than that, his commitment to the game is what will help him reach new heights moving forward, because new challenges from opponents await.
"I had a great visit with him (after the season ended)," head coach Mike McCarthy said following the Cowboys' playoff loss to San Francisco. "We talked about what he can do coming off his rookie season. Clearly he made an impact. The biggest thing he is going to have to get accustomed to is the changes people make for him. We've got make sure we have him prepared. He's a targeting challenge for an offense -- that ability to move him around, any player in this league will attest to this.
"Once you have success, people will study the film and have a plan for you. So we've got to make sure he takes that next step to be able to combat and continue to be highly successful."
Parsons has gotten tips from the all-time greats, too. He said he had lunch with former Cowboy DeMarcus Ware, the franchise's all-time sack leader, in December. Ware told him he can improve his jump off the snap count to get a faster start at the quarterback.
The praise and accolades are great. Parsons is up for two more awards in February -- NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Building on all that 2021 success is the next challenge -- one he embraces.
"I think when you achieve things early, you've got to learn how to sustain it," he said. "People always say when you get there it gets easier. But I think when you get there, it gets harder. Once you get it, you've got it, but it's harder to sustain it than it is just to get there.
"I've got to just keep working and keep getting better and find a way to beat this season next year, which is the harder part."