Clemson enters this college football season boasting three defensive linemen who likely would've been picked in the first or second round of the 2018 draft. [Insert Dabo Swinney locker room dance GIF]
Many believed -- including myself -- that Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant would declare for the draft after stellar 2017 campaigns. Instead, the trio is still intact, as all decided to stay with the Tigers for one more season.
Add to that triumvirate Dexter Lawrence, the largest and most hyped high school recruit out of the foursome, and you get, on paper, a collegiate defensive line for the ages.
NC State's group from a season ago had one first-rounder (Bradley Chubb) and two third-rounders (B.J. Hill and Justin Jones). That same program represents the recent gold standard in unfairly loaded defensive fronts that ultimately yielded early NFL Draft picks when the Wolfpack's 2005 contingent featured three Round 1 selections in the '06 NFL Draft (Mario Williams at No. 1, Manny Lawson at No. 22, John McCargo at No. 26).
This Clemson team could see four defensive linemen go in the first round of the 2019 draft. Seriously. Here's a snapshot of each before they embark on a season of block-destroying in the ACC.
2016: 44 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks
2017: 66 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks
This young man has the most NFL superstar potential of the group. Listed at 6-feet-5 and 260 pounds with a frame that could reasonably add more weight -- which is frightening for offensive linemen -- Ferrell, who just turned 21, plays with immense juice on the edge.
He deploys his hands well when turning the corner too, although his repertoire of pass-rushing moves could use more diversity. Right now, he's mainly a speed-to-power player who flashes good bend and has superior athletic gifts. While we won't get official measurements until the combine, Ferrell's arms look like some of the longest in college football for the defensive end position, a major luxury pro teams will love because he has an enormous tackle radius and can get his hands on the football on rushes that don't end in the quarterback's lap.
Ferrell should build on his two forced fumbles of 2017 and approach or eclipse double-digit tackles for loss and sacks. He should challenge Nick Bosa to be the first pure edge-rusher to be taken in the 2019 draft.
Early comparison: Robert Quinn
2016: 48 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, 9 PBUs
2017: 60 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks
Wilkins is one of those household name college players who has seemingly been around for a decade, as he made an impact with 33 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks on the national runner-up Clemson squad of 2015.
He'll be 23 in December and has a unique frame at 6-4 and 300 pounds which lends credence to the idea that he can be a member of an NFL defensive line who aligns at a different position seemingly every snap. Wilkins' fluidity when changing directions is more impressive than his explosiveness up the field, and he appeared to rely on his plus strength too often last season instead of utilizing intricate pass-rushing moves to disrupt the backfield.
Some NFL teams will be enamored with the versatility of a tall, 300-pound athlete on their defensive front. Others will see a heavy defensive end lacking bend who loses the leverage battle on the inside because of his height. We know he can take on blocks, and he is noticeably strong, but Wilkins can be showcased if he's given more opportunities to attack upfield for the Tigers this season. He should be drafted in the first round on his physical talent and long-standing production alone yet could move into the top half of the Round 1 if he proves to be a capable one-gap penetrator.
Early comparison: Johnathan Hankins
2016: 62 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks
2017: 33 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks
Lawrence doesn't turn 21 until November, and he's a rare prospect who had an NFL body at 18 years old. Listed at 6-4 and 327 pounds as the No. 2 overall recruit in the high school Class of 2016 by 247Sports, he has packed on some additional weight at Clemson and has carried it well.
Lawrence stands out among the trees and has plays when, in the moment, you realize that as one of college football's biggest defenders he shouldn't be moving as fast as he is. However, he does possess many nose tackle traits, meaning he's not super twitchy. Lawrence's height can hurt him against stocky, powerful interior linemen, but no one would contend he's easily moved. More important, the former five-star recruit can use a swipe move to occasionally get to the quarterback, and when he can pin his ears back, his bull rush is Herculean.
Similar to Wilkins, Lawrence's body type makes him a defensive line tweener, but at the NFL level he's likely to stay inside where he can cause the most disruption. Heck, he could shed some weight to get back into the 320s and be one of the most physically imposing 3-4 ends in the league. Also like Wilkins, if Lawrence is asked to attack more often and reaches or eclipses his 2016 figures, he should go in the top half of Round 1. If not, he might slide due to most of his impact coming against the run.
Early comparison: Dontari Poe
2017: 50 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks
Tasked on many plays with the responsibility to react to the read-option as the unblocked end, Bryant didn't have sack numbers in 2017 that were fully indicative of his individual performance on the outside. Another monster physically, Bryant stands 6-5 and is a chiseled 260 pounds. He really has a towering presence on the edge of Clemson's front.
Being able to stymie the read-option has become an important skill for defensive ends, and his work there as a tall, long outside defensive lineman was outstanding in 2017. Bryant is a plus linear athlete with excellent burst and closing speed, particularly for someone of his stature.
He's not a twitchy, bendy, change-of-direction edge-rusher, which does limit what he can bring to a team at the professional level. However, there is a fair amount of coverage snaps on his résumé, and he's only minimally awkward sinking in zone. There's a good chance he'll be viewed as a SAM linebacker for a club that mainly aligns that player close to the line of scrimmage in an under front. He would also be a nice fit as a LEO hybrid linebacker/end used in schemes run by Pete Carroll and his coaching descendants, among others. With another highly productive season, Bryant should hear his name called in the back half of the first round. If not, he looks like a classic early second-rounder. He'll be 22 in November.
Early comparison: Connor Barwin