When you get a first round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, you go. That’s how it should be. Especially if you play a position that you know the NFL prioritizes — quarterback, edge rusher, offensive tackle or cornerback. This game of football can eat you up and spit you out. It’s a cruel game with injuries, situations, relationships around you; all of that. You never know what tomorrow holds, so you often get what you can out of it.
For most, that means money. It means the chance to play in the pros. But for Clemson edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, his football life was more than that.
“One of the reasons why we all decided to come back… I’m sure you’ve seen juniors declare early and you’re like, ‘why would they do that?’ You don’t really understand,” Ferrell said. “For a lot of the guys, the schools that they’re at, they don’t really like being where they are unless it’s football season… But [for me] it’s the type of atmosphere to where you can enjoy yourself year-round. The culture, the places we’re living… it’s a great place to be as a young person. It’s not like I decided to come back to school. It’s like I decided to come back home.”
It takes a level of maturity to say something like that and to put off your future — a very well-off future, monetarily speaking — to sit back and enjoy the place you’re at in life. Not everyone has the mental make up to do that, but as now a redshirt junior headed to the NFL draft, Ferrell does.
But an outlook on life isn’t the only thing that has matured over the past year as Ferrell decided to put off the NFL for an extra season at Clemson. Over the past 15 games, Ferrell has shown a maturity in his game, one that the NFL will surly appreciate. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Ferrell is the prototypical defensive end. He can play with his hands down or from a stand-up position. He can defend the run and rush the passer with true all-around style, making him a three-down lineman for almost any team.
Ferrell has been a starter for Clemson for three seasons. In those three seasons, starting as just a redshirt freshman, he’s recorded 50.5 tackles for loss and 27 sacks, increasing his season numbers in each category every year.
Ferrell has grown in a lot of ways, and as he prepares for the NFL Draft, let’s look at where he stands as a prospect with the 5-Play formula.
Play No. 1: (Better Than) Humble Beginnings
This entire subsection is going to be devoted to what Ferrell was like in his first year as a starter back in 2016, because understanding that is important for understanding who he is now.
For starters, Ferrell, who is No. 99 on the right side of the defensive line, has always filled out his 6-foot-5 frame very well, even as a 19-year-old, and because of that he’s always been able to stop the run.
This is something that gives Ferrell a very high floor as a prospect. At a baseline, you know you’re getting a body big enough and strong enough to set the edge.
Something that Ferrell also boasts naturally is a great first step. When you watch a player in his first year of real action, they’re likely relying on natural talents more than technique or experience, just because they’re looking to do their best out of natural talent, while the other parts of their game will come in time. That kind of burst in the clip above shows that it is natural for Ferrell. He wasn’t timing the snap, he was just firing off the ball.
There wasn’t anyone blocking him, and I know that, but I used that clip to show just how fast a man of his size got off the ball naturally. It will be an important trait to remember.
These last two clips in this section are very important because they highlight the greatest “weakness” or critique of Ferrell’s game.
In the first clip, you can see Ferrell tried to use speed to get around the edge, but as he attempted to bend around the offensive tackle, he tried to bend harder than his body was flexible, and his feet just got out from underneath him. In the second clip, he once again tried to win with speed, but being more conscious of how he slipped the last time, he tried to stay true to the limitations of his body and he couldn’t bend enough.
Ferrell does not have elite flexibility. This is what holds him back the most from being one of the rare prospects in this draft. Where you love that he has the size to set the edge and defend the run, Ferrell sacrifices that with a lack of natural flexibility with stiff hips and limited ankle mobility.
Simply put, in his natural state as a first-time starter in 2016, you could already see what Ferrell did well and what he didn’t. And in his natural state, he was not flexible enough to be a speed rusher without refinement.
Play No. 2: Still A Setter
Ferrell was a good run defender by default when he first stepped on the field as a starter in 2016, but he has since increased his effectiveness on the edge to be a true edge defender.
Whether it’s against inside zone, power runs, RPOs from the shotgun, whatever it is, Ferrell is smart, patient and strong when defending the run to his side. Whatever Ferrell’s baseline was a defender before the last two years, his floor has only gotten higher with more practice on getting off blocks and experience when reading run plays.
Play No. 3: A Man Who Needs A Plan
Now, let’s get into some pass rushing. Going into the 2017 and even the 2018 season, Ferrell still did not have a distinct plan when it came to pass rushing. Sometimes what he would do well would come in spurts. You could see the talent and even some growth there, but it did not come with enough consistency, and it did not come at a high enough level.
Getting into the specifics of what I mean when I say his level of pass rushing, Ferrell would often have his first way of attacking an offensive tackle, but when that didn’t work, he would too easily let himself get locked up in the block. It wasn’t until the 2018 season that we saw Ferrell develop a greater knowledge of what to do with his hands to continually fight off blocks, and even learn some counter moves that would be both reactionary once an initial pass rush did not work or even a set up to use as a counter in a grander scheme of a plan throughout the game.
Play No. 4: Learning The Inside Move
I think the first step towards learning how to counter and truly pass rush with a plan better came when Ferrell started to master his ability to move inside on offensive tackles with regularity.
As seen in the clip above, Ferrell was much more prepared on what to do with his hands to punch the offensive lineman back, get him off balance and was then able to move right inside as he timed his move with the tackle moving backwards.
Eventually, as Ferrell got more and more confident with going inside, he learned a thing or two from Colts great Dwight Freeney and started to show off a little spin move. Due to Ferrell having a great burst off the snap, we know that he has some initial explosiveness in his body. This bodes well for spin moves. Ferrell can turn his body violently, as to not expose his back for long and get his elbow around the offensive tackle to compete spin moves effectively.
You can see the progression of not only confidence and comfort level in the move but also its effectiveness hand-in-hand. Pulling off inside moves is risky because if you don’t get home, you’re leaving the edge open for the quarterback to scramble to. But, if you can pull them off at the speed and effectiveness Ferrell does, then you can not only get to the quarterback on a singular play, you force an offensive tackle to stay honest to the inside move, therefore setting him up to speed rushes later in the game.
Ferrell has truly learned how to be a threat to either shoulder of an offensive tackle thanks to him learning those inside moves over the last two years.
Play No. 5: Finding The Edge
As stated before, learning the art of the inside move has made Ferrell a threat as a speed rusher, too. Once you get an offensive lineman to hesitate, even player who doesn’t have elite bend can get home.
Ferrell couldn’t quite get there quick enough to get the sack in the play above, but it sure was disruptive, and disruption is still production (shoutout Josh Norris).
Ferrell has also learned to use every past of his body better over the last year. He’s not just speed rushing and trying to dip his shoulder.With all the experience he has under his belt, he knows where his limitations are, but he’s getting the most out of himself within them.
In the clip above, Ferrell combined a good jump off the snap with a longer loop around the offensive lineman, knowing the quarterback would be in a deeper drop, and did so in order to almost spin his arms around to swipe at the ball. It worked to perfection. That’s knowing your body.
In the final clip above, Ferrell put it all together. His jump off the snap was elite, he was able to swipe off the tackle’s hands with strong hands of his own, and he then hugged the body of the offensive tackle closely enough to where he could cut the corner while knowing the limitations of his balance to stay up and get the strip sack. Ferrell wasn’t able to do ll that in 2016. Here in 2018, his physical limitations were the same, but he had the technique and the plan to make up for it about as well as you can.
In close, does Ferrell have limits as a pass rusher? Yes, he does. You will find a handful of guys, Bosa, Polite, Allen and Burns, who can all bend the corner better than Ferrell. But even though edge bending is the flashy-est form of pass rushing, when you’re talented and you know your talent’s strength and weakness inside and out, you can come up with a plan to still be effective. I think Ferrell is that and then some.
Ferrell has matured on and off the field every year, and his production has increased each season because of it. I expect that to continue in the the NFL. Will he ever give you the Von Miller kind of sacks? No. But can I see him having the same sort of success Bradley Chubb is, if paired with the right defensive line.