In the year of the defensive lineman in the NFL draft, it would be understandable if Eagles executive Joe Douglas starts seeing tiger paws in his sleep by April. There might be a dozen defensive linemen who go in the first round of the draft this year, including three from Clemson.
When the Eagles draft at No 25, a case could be made for all three as their selection – if any of them last that long. Defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence and defensive end Clelin Ferrell are the potential first-round picks. Two other Clemson defensive linemen were also at the combine and will get drafted this spring.
Eagles executive Howie Roseman said this is a historic defensive line class, but for the Clemson defensive line, such superlatives are nothing new.
“I kind of experienced the same thing at Clemson,” Ferrell said. “People were trying to call it the greatest defensive line ever in the history of college football — and I think that we are — but that was something I had to think about after the season. That’s not something you want to focus on right now.”
The Clemson lineman who would best fit the Eagles if he’s available when they draft is Wilkins, a three-time all-American who played 59 career games for the Tigers. Wilkins, who is already 23, is on the older side for a prospect because he was a fifth-year senior. But the 6-foot-3, 315-pound Wilkins had six sacks last season and 16 in his career – he played defensive end earlier in his college career – and his skills are best suited for Jim Schwartz’s attacking defense.
Wilkins didn’t wow during the athletic testing at the combine, although his performance during the last four years is enough evidence of his worthiness for the Eagles.
Wilkins is also decorated off the field. He graduated in two and a half years and earned a master’s while at Clemson. He won college football’s William V. Campbell Trophy for a player with the best combination of football success, academic success, and community leadership.
“I want a team to realize that if you get me … they’re investing in so much more,” Wilkins said. “Just the ability to not only dominate on the field, be effective on the field, but also to improve the culture, whether it’s good, bad, ugly, different. …
"I think ultimately, I’m the kind of guy you want in the locker room, you want on your team, on the field with you. I’m someone who’s just extremely committed and invested in my craft.”
If the Eagles draft Lawrence, as some draft analysts have forecast, they’re investing in a rare blend of size and athleticism – and more size. Lawrence is 6-foot-4 and 342 pounds, which was the biggest of any player at the combine. His 36 bench-press reps were the most of any defensive lineman. And his 5.05-second 40-yard dash was respectable for someone of that weight.
In fact, it was faster even than that of quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who is more than 111 pounds lighter than Lawrence. Lawrence suffered a quadriceps injury while working out.
Lawrence left Clemson after three seasons, so at age 21, he has room to grow. He arrived on campus as a decorated recruit who played from Day 1, but if you watched Clemson in the national championship game, you didn’t see Lawrence on the field. That’s because he was suspended for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, which he denied knowingly using.
“I’m naturally this size, this big, been this way all my life,” Lawrence said. “There’s no reason for me to do anything selfish like that. … Every time I take a drug test it’s going to be skeptical because that was just something that I know I didn’t do, and something to pop up like that just really unfortunate.
Because of Lawrence’s size, he can be typecast as a space-eating, early-down defender. That’s not necessarily worth a premium pick in a passing league.
But Lawrence has enough athletic ability to develop as a pass rusher – he had seven sacks as a freshman – and if that happens, he could become a fearsome interior presence. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Eagles scout, said Lawrence reminds him of Eagles defensive tackle Haloti Ngata when the five-time Pro Bowler was in the 2006 draft.
“I always had little friends. .. They jumped the fence with no hands. That’s what I was going to do. That’s just kind of what grew on me, and being strong was just natural,” Lawrence said. “I can’t do anything about that. I tried to mimic my game after that. I don’t want to be slow and big. That’s no fun for no one, really. So, just to show my athleticism is just what I love to do."
The Eagles have a greater immediate and long-term need at defensive tackle than defensive end. But pass rushers are always at a premium, and other than Derek Barnett, the Eagles’ best defensive ends are 30 and older. So it’s not out of the question that the Eagles take an edge rusher in the first round, and if they do, Ferrell is one to watch.
The long-armed, 6-foot-4, 264-pounder had 11.5 sacks last season and was an all-American the last two years.
“I just feel like my versatility is something that is very, very important when I feel like you talk about my game,” Ferrell said. ”That has always given me an edge as far as giving me a benefit on the field. Not only just my versatility as a player — I can play defensive end, I played some defensive tackle this past year, three-technique. I’ve also dropped into coverage, outside linebacker. But not only just doing those things, but I feel like I’ve done them at consistently a high level.”
The Eagles could go for a different position in the first round, but given their organizational emphasis on the defensive line, the need, and the talent in this draft, it’s a smart bet that the Eagles will draft a lineman. If they do, remember the three from Clemson.
“I think I know what I’m buying with this group. They’re pretty defined,” Jeremiah said.“I think people are going to rate them a little differently based on what they need.”