The Clemson Tigers have had a player selected in 71 of the 82 NFL drafts. But only 19 times has the program represented five or more drafted prospects. By Sunday evening the defending champs could send five defensive linemen into the 2019 NFL Draft alone.

In 2018, the Clemson Tigers would become national champions and the first 15-0 team since 1897. Their success can be attributed to the wealth of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Clemson would return eight defensive starters from 2017’s team, including all four defensive linemen. The Tigers could have as many as five defensive linemen selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Three of the four defensive line starters were draft-eligible following the 2017 season. Instead of making the jump, they’d elect to return for a final run at a championship. Those three players are Clelin Ferrell (DE), Christian Wilkins (DT), and Austin Bryant (DE).

Fast forward to the 2019 NFL Draft, and Clemson now has five draft-eligible defensive linemen. With additions of newly eligible Dexter Lawrence (DT) and senior reserve Albert Huggins (DT), school history is on notice. We could also see something Thursday that has never taken place before. For the first time during the “common-era” NFL draft, three defensive linemen from the same school could be selected in the first round.

Regardless of draft position, knowing which player is truly the best of the bunch will have to wait. Not until a few seasons pass will we surely know which players were products of the unit. Until then, let’s examine the characteristics that make up an exceptional defensive lineman. Furthermore, we’ll rank the players based on each trait.

Run defense

The defensive line’s objective is to control the line of scrimmage. Nowhere is this more evident than on running plays. A great lineman maintains his position, minds his gap and disrupts the blocking scheme.

Honorable Mention – Wilkins

Much of Christian Wilkins‘ film provides us with exceptional run stuffing technique. Wilkins does well enough, but just lacks that consistency required to move ahead of the guys next on the list. One play he flashes, the next he gets washed out with a double team.

Runner Up – Ferrell

Playing on the edge against the run leaves you vulnerable. Clelin Ferrell doesn’t have the privilege of tight windows and support to either side as his teammates Wilkins, Lawrence, and Huggins do. For this very reason, Ferrell is above Wilkins. He’s much more consistent as well. His ability to squeeze gaps and maintain outside leverage will transition to the NFL on day one.

Winner – Lawrence

At 6-feet four and 342 pounds, Dexter Lawrence should do well to hold his ground. The combination of size and power allows him to stand pat and two-gap effectively. Whether he’s cut, doubled or down blocked, Lawrence can frustrate efforts from an offensive lineman. What stands out? His upper body power, solid footwork and surprising athleticism for his size. You will not move him with one-on-ones.


Some consider a defensive lineman’s most important trait to be his first step. Being able to react quickly to the snap lends an advantage to defenders. A swift first step can be enough to beat a lineman or set up an effective counter. It’s both useful in run support and rushing the passer.

Honorable Mention – Lawrence

As I expressed earlier, Lawrence is impressively athletic for a 350-pound man. The actual speed at which he attacks isn’t what gets him recognition, though. His combination of hand use, brute force, and snap reaction will destroy blocks at times.

Runner Up – Ferrell

Ferrell has excellent snap reaction. Probably the quickest among the five. Because he’s more well rounded than a pure upfield rusher, Ferrell tends to slow in his second and third steps. He makes it work, however. With offensive tackles able to catch up, he then works his counters, combinations, and hands to get the job done.

Winner – Wilkins

This was an extremely close call. Wilkins and Ferrell are virtually identical when it comes to their first step quickness. I give the edge to Wilkins, however. His speed increases, unlike Ferrell who will tend to slow his feet on contact. Wilkins explodes into gaps when he’s given a clear cut plan to attack. While not in the Ed Oliver mold, he’s still quite effective at disrupting pulls and longer developing runs. When locked on a target, Wilkins’ closing speed is impressive for being over 300-pounds.

Pass rush

Only two teams in the entire NFL ran more than they passed in 2018. One-third of the league threw 60 percent or more of the time. With that said, rushing the pass is becoming more and more significant with every passing season. The traits that teams are looking for from this draft class are explosion, bend, and motor.

Honorable Mention – Bryant

Austin Bryant gets lost far too often among his teammates. Because many of his traits as an edge defender are unpolished, his potential is rarely discussed. He has good length and burst when rushing the passer. Some of his best highlights include pursuing runners and quarterback scrambles on the perimeter.

Runner Up – Wilkins

With experience at both end and tackle position, it’s evident that Wilkins can get after the quarterback. His athleticism allows him to find ways through the line of scrimmage on his way to harassing the signal caller. Once he’s realized the ball will be released before getting there, Wilkins shows great awareness in getting his hands up.

Winner – Ferrell

Technically speaking, Ferrell should be the best pass rusher on the defensive line. His position is more geared toward that approach. Again, he’s not going to wow you with elite burst, bend or strength. What he does have is an array of talent that gets him in good positions often. His hand technique and counters will keep offensive tackles on edge. He’s not predictable. If at first, he doesn’t succeed, he will continue hustling until the whistle.


Winning battles at the line of scrimmage comes down to play strength and converting speed into power. Strength at any defensive line position greatly increases one’s chances of success on any play. It’s not enough to just be big. Strength goes much further than that. A player’s muscle mass assists in explosiveness as well as durability.

Honorable Mention – Huggins

Being able to bench 225-pounds 35 times is telling. At 6-feet three and 305-pounds, Albert Huggins showed his obvious mass and strength when thrust into a starting role at the end of the season. Similarly to teammate Lawrence, Huggins eats up blocks and anchors with the best of them. His determination to not be defeated will go a long way in his further development.

Runner Up – Ferrell

If you haven’t realized this by now, Ferrell is a well-rounded football player. He’s continuously showing up in these rankings one way or another. As an end, he’s surprisingly powerful. With his impressive length and arm strength, Ferrell usually defeats offensive tackles with his hand usage. He works through contact effectively and shows great power in his base.

Winner – Lawrence

Lawrence is an intimidating presence. Ballcarriers have nowhere to go but to the ground when he gets a hand on them. He can anchor, 2-gap and dislodge from blockers like clockwork. His impressive flexibility for his frame allows him to work down the line on extended run plays with ease. Lawrence isn’t going to load up on sacks, but with his explosiveness, power and length at the point of attack, he’ll consistently push the pocket on passing downs.


In today’s NFL, versatility is becoming essential when scouting college prospects. Being versatile can help a player transition to the professional ranks. It allows for more positional use and opportunities for young players. Furthermore, an exceptional talent who is also versatile can become a headache for offensive coordinators.

Honorable Mention – Bryant

At 6-feet four and 271 pounds, Bryant has proven capable of playing as a stand-up end. Bryant’s versatility in playing with his hand in the dirt and then flexing outside only increases the amount of team interest come draft day. He’ll need plenty of coaching, however. Neither area is strong enough to warrant him a starter at the next level.

Runner Up – Lawrence

Many players of Lawrence’s stature struggle to fit multiple defensive schemes in today’s NFL. With that said, Lawrence has just enough athleticism to warrant using him in any front. While he’s best suited as a zero-technique, he certainly can eat up blocks in either 1,2 or 3-techniques at the next level. He’ll be an inside linebacker’s best friend.

Winner – Wilkins

From zero all the way to the nine technique, Wilkins can make plays. He can impact an NFL defense on day one at any one of those starting positions. I firmly believe he’s a top-10 talent among defensive linemen entering this year’s draft. He has the experience to rush the pass on the outside, inside and off stunts. He is disruptive against run block schemes from anywhere on the defensive front.

Furthermore, Wilkins can play in the 4-3 or outside in the 3-4. Put him on special teams and he’ll make an impact. Additionally, his ball skills are above average for a guy his size which allowed him to catch passes and run the football for the Tigers. He’s a leader and works harder than the next guy. Wilkins is an all-around football player. The most versatile of the group.

Three of Clemson’s five defensive linemen are sure-fire selections in the first round of the draft. The order in which they are picked will depend on the needs of the teams on the clock. One thing is for certain if the defensive line is where they’re looking, Clemson has a player for every team’s needs in 2019.