NFL Draft 2019: Clemson's Christian Wilkins surprisingly an underrated prospect in senior season
The value of the well-known Tiger defensive lineman lies in his extraordinary versatility
He was named a Freshman All-American after a 4.5 tackle-for-loss, two-sack season in 2015 playing in the shadows of future first-rounder Shaq Lawson, eventual second-rounder Kevin Dodd, fourth-rounder Carlos Watkins, and fifth-rounder D.J. Reader.
After 2016, when Clemson finally toppled the Alabama empire to win the national title, the true sophomore drifted into superstar territory, as he led the Tigers with 13.0 tackles for loss and was second on the team with nine passes defended.
For Wilkins, top 5 pick hype was born.
In 2017, instead of building on his gargantuan sophomore year statistics across the board, he regressed to just 9.0 tackles for loss but did up his sack total from 3.5 to 5.0. He also had 12 more tackles in one less game. But beyond the stat sheet, it simply wasn't as disruptive of a season for Wilkins as everyone expected. He went from first-round lock to being overrated.
With gobs of future NFL talent around him, Wilkins again found himself in the background as a pro prospect heading into the 2018 season, one many believed he'd never play at Clemson.
At this point in Wilkins' senior season, the soon-to-be 23-year-old defensive lineman has played more like the 2016 version of himself than what he showed as a junior. From a draft perspective, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence, teammates he literally lines up next to on most defensive snaps, are Clemson's true headliners.
Wilkins is now underrated.
It's taken a while, but I've come to an important realization with Wilkins and his value at the next level. His specialty is that he doesn't have a specialty, a luxury in a league that's becoming more "positionless" by the year.
Wilkins isn't a pass-rushing three technique only. He's not a pure nose tackle. He's not your classic block-eating five technique either. However, he's played all those roles at Clemson and flashed serious NFL talent while doing so. And good, old-fashioned dirty work is the main responsibility of two of those three positions. He was asked to read then react on the inside and even when technically playing on the edge of many of the Tigers' three down linemen fronts in 2016 and 2017. Without knowing for certain his exact assignment on each play, he often seemed to be devouring blocks to free linebackers and outside-rushers.
At 6-foot-3 and 309 pounds, Wilkins is a hybrid of sorts, and should be categorized as a "defensive lineman" during the pre-draft process. Not a defensive tackle. Not a defensive end.
He's more Akiem Hicks or Michael Pierce, two underrated but vital pieces for the Bears and Ravens -- stout run-defenders first who provide quality pass-rush at times -- than he is the much flashier Aaron Donald or Geno Atkins.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
From a physical standpoint, Wilkins is NFL ready. He was listed at No. 9 on Bruce Feldman's famous "Freaks" list heading into the 2017 season then again at No. 15 on the prestigious list before the 2018 campaign. Impressive feat.
Instead of solely zeroing in on mammoth defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence or angular edge-rusher Clelin Ferrell in Clemson's huge ACC clash with NC State this Saturday, take time to watch Wilkins, the easy-to-miss linchpin of the Tigers defensive front.
The top-5 pick attention was probably too aggressive. And even if Wilkins "falls" into the second round of the 2019 Draft, at that point, it won't matter how or why he landed there. In fact, that draft position always tempers expectations to more reasonable levels.
Though likely never a superstar, if Wilkins lands with the right coordinator, who gives him multiple duties at multiple positions, based on what he's shown to date in his long Clemson career, he'll be a valuable member of an NFL defense starting in 2019.
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