The Clemson Tigers have reached the pinnacle of college football over the past few seasons. They sit atop the college football landscape among the most marquee programs like Alabama and LSU. Clemson has won a national championship and competed for another in back-to-back years. With that on-field success has come much success in the NFL and top prospects in the NFL Draft. Clemson has a number of top prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft class and will have just as many — if not even more — in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Success for Clemson has not necessarily translated into success for the ACC as a whole, however. As a conference, the ACC beyond Clemson is largely ignored on a national level. Teams like Florida State are a shell of their former glory, while teams like North Carolina and Duke are more known for basketball prowess than anything on the gridiron. But don’t let their lack of on-field success fool you into thinking the ACC doesn’t have several top-quality prospects available in the 2021 NFL Draft class, too.
All-together, the teams in the ACC boast as strong an NFL Draft class in 2021 as any of the “Power 5” conferences. Let’s take a look at which top prospects in the ACC come from the Clemson program, and who comes from the field.
ACC’s Top 2021 NFL Draft Prospects – Clemson edition
Not much needs to be said here. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is the top prospect in the ACC for the 2021 NFL Draft. He’s going to be the first quarterback off the board in this draft, and will likely be the first overall selection. He’s head and shoulders ahead of not only his Clemson teammates but every other prospect in the conference.
Lawrence is one of those extraordinary prospects who may be worthy of the “once in a generation” title NFL Draft analysts like to throw around. He’s undoubtedly the best quarterback prospect the draft has seen since Andrew Luck came out of Stanford. He may even be better. Lawrence can make every throw you see, from anywhere on the field. He has enough athleticism to escape when needed and can make plays off-platform just as well as he does on.
No prospect in any NFL Draft is ever truly a “can’t miss” prospect. But Lawrence may just be one.
The first two selections in the 2020 NFL Draft are likely to be a quarterback (Joe Burrow) and an edge rusher (Chase Young). History may repeat itself in the 2021 NFL Draft — and be made in the process — thanks to Clemson edge rusher Xavier Thomas. Not only is Thomas the best edge defender in the ACC (in a conference filled with quality at the position), he’s arguably the top prospect at the position regardless of conference.
Thomas has only been a part-time player to this point in his Clemson career, but he’s shown endless potential in his limited time on the field. Now with Clemson losing a ton of talent on that side of the ball, it’s Thomas’ time to shine.
Thomas may not have the production of a top-5 NFL Draft selection, but many expect Thomas to have a breakout season in 2020, myself included. The pass-rusher struggled with injuries for much of the year and was forced to play out of position for a lot of the 2019 season. Healthy and back to edge-rushing duties, Thomas should have production more in line with his talent.
We’ve all heard the popular quip “running backs don’t matter.” To a degree, there’s some truth to it. Running back is a position that’s seeing less and less traditional importance as NFL offenses evolve. Gone are the days of the bell-cow running back who gets 30 carries per game. Now you have to be a complete back, offering something to the team in the passing game as well as the running game.
With this “evolution” has come a devaluation of the position in the NFL Draft as well. But certain running backs buck that trend, and Clemson running back Travis Etienne will be one of those backs. Etienne is comfortably the top running back prospect in the ACC for the 2021 NFL Draft. Etienne could have declared for the 2020 NFL Draft and been one of the top prospects in this class.
However, with his return to Clemson, he has a chance to round-out his resume and prove to NFL teams that he can be the type of all-purpose back they’re looking for. It’s a facet of his game Etienne began to show in 2019, and I expect it will only grow in 2020.
Lawrence may be the top prospect available in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he hasn’t gotten there by himself. Clemson has become known for having top talent at the wide receiver position, and the next in that long line of talent is Justyn Ross. Ross has become a favorite target of Lawrence during his Tigers career, and will likely be the first wide receiver from the ACC off the board in 2021.
Ross burst onto the scene as a freshman with the Tigers, notching a 1,000-yard season on an absurd 21.7 yards per reception clip and nine touchdowns, all of that coming on just 46 receptions. The numbers came down a bit for Ross as a sophomore, with “only” 865 yards and eight touchdowns on 20 more receptions. All while playing second-fiddle to Tee Higgins. With Higgins on to the NFL, Ross should return to form and meet — or exceed — the numbers from his freshman year.
Another year of production like that should vault Ross into the conversation with Ja’Marr Chase, Devonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle as the nation’s best wide receiver. No question it would cement Ross as the top WR prospect in the ACC for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Many people may not know the name Derion Kendrick, but you will, by the time the 2021 NFL Draft is here. Not only is Kendrick the top CB prospect in the ACC, but he might also be the best cornerback in the entire nation. Pretty good for a prospect who started his Clemson career as a receiver and was only moved to the position to provide depth when injuries hit.
Kendrick took a shine to the position from the moment he made the switch, quickly becoming one of the top defenders on a team chock full of them. Kendrick earned enough trust to be given the unenviable task of matching up with LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase at times in the national championship game.
Now, with another year under his belt and another year to learn the position, the sky’s the limit for Kendrick. With a year of top-flight production at the position, he could easily find himself in the conversation with the likes of Stanford’s Paulson Adebo for the top spot at the position.
Check back on Sunday when I unveil part two, looking at the top non-Clemson 2021 NFL Draft prospects in the ACC.
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