Leaving early: Which players could declare for the NFL Draft in 2018?


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Clelin Ferrell with the early tackle against FSU last season
Clelin Ferrell with the early tackle against FSU last season

The Clemson football program has lost ten underclassmen to the NFL Draft the last two years, with five juniors declaring for the draft each year. Next year could see a similar, or even greater, number.

The Tigers had just eight underclassmen declare from 2011-15, with punter Bradley Pinion the lone declaration after the 2015 season. That trend was reversed in 2016 when Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, T.J. Green. Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse all declared after the Tigers’ loss to Alabama in the title game. That number didn’t include “juniors” Zac Brooks and Travis Blanks, who had already graduated and decided to test the waters.

Five more declared this past January, including quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Who could be the early departures after next season? We’ll take a look at what is a lengthy list. Head coach Dabo Swinney told us last week that next year’s team features just nine seniors and that he expects next year’s recruiting class to be another small one. That could change if the Tigers see mass defections.

*DL Christian Wilkins. It’s hard to believe that next year will be Wilkins’ third on campus. He played defensive tackle his first season, moved to defensive end last season and has posted 48 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 3 ½ sacks and an incredible 10 passes broken up. He could move back inside this spring, and it’s likely the NFL sees him as a defensive tackle more than an end.

He has all the tools, and he’ll be the face of Clemson next season. But he’s also someone who really loves being at Clemson and is already looking at life beyond football. It wouldn’t be a shock if he left and it wouldn’t be a shock if he stayed.

*DE Clelin Ferrell. Ferrell redshirted his first year on campus, so he’ll be eligible to declare after next season (like Mackensie Alexander did a year ago). We heard rave reviews on Ferrell all through last spring and fall camp, but he had just 6 ½ tackles for loss through the season’s first 12 games.

Then, something clicked, and he had six tackles for loss in the season’s final three games against Virginia Tech, Ohio St. and Alabama. He might have had more if he hadn’t suffered an injury against the Crimson Tide. He is the one that really will bear watching next season – he has the right size and speed to be an elite pass rusher, but can he keep up the pace he set at the end of last season?

*WR Deon Cain. Cain is another player whose skill set is unmistakable. Cain has a chance to be the go-to guy in Clemson’s offense next season, but he has to make major strides. He had 34 catches for 582 yards in 2015 and 38 catches for 724 yards in 2016. The big-play ability is there and his maturity was on display for most of last season.

He’s already proven he can run down the field and make plays, but now he has to master the plays that made Mike Williams so dangerous this past season, like the back-shoulder throw. If he continues to progress and his blocking takes another step forward, Cain will definitely explore his options.

*LT Mitch Hyatt. Hyatt is another one that I can’t believe will be in his third year next season. He earned First Team All-ACC honors this past season, and didn’t allow a sack all year. But if Hyatt is going to explore leaving early, I think he needs to add more muscle. And, while his pass blocking is exceptional, he has room for improvement in his run blocking.

It’s hard to say where he will be from a technique and size standpoint a year from now, but if he continues to make strides, he could be a guy that would also explore his options.

*DE Austin Bryant. Bryant missed the season’s first six games with a foot injury, and with Wilkins and Ferrell playing so well he failed to crack the starting rotation. However, he began to see longer stretches of playing time as the season progressed and when Ferrell left the championship game with an ankle injury Bryant came off the bench and harassed Bama quarterback Jalen Hurts with abandon.

He will be a junior next season, but if Wilkins slips back inside and Bryant returns to a starting role, he could have a breakout season. Especially if teams double-team Ferrell. What would project him into the conversation? A double-digit sack season would do the trick.

*LB Kendall Joseph. The product of nearby Belton-Honea Path had an exceptional season as Clemson’s middle linebacker. He tallied 108 total tackles, 12 ½ tackles for loss and 3 ½ sacks. A similar – or better – season in 2017 could also project Joseph into thinking about leaving early.

There are a few others we could mention – like wide receivers Ray-Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow and cornerback Mark Fields -but we would have to see more than we’ve seen from those players to really consider them a threat to leave.


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