There is a perception out there that I have an extremely low opinion of the Clemson defensive line. That isn't true. I think Christian Wilkins is a solid player, Dexter Lawrence has size and athletic potential when he's healthy, Clelin Ferrell is a well-rounded day one starter and Austin Bryant...yeah, I don't have a high opinion of Bryant's game right now. That one is fair.
My overarching point during this summer has been that none of the four players on the Tigers defensive front should be getting the top ten hype that three of them are currently receiving. The media loves to run with clickbait headlines and all-encompassing narratives like "Clemson could have three first round picks on their defensive line", or even "Clemson has three defensive linemen who could vie for a top ten pick".
No, they don't. But I'm not here to talk about that (yet). I'm here to talk about Ferrell, who I believe is the best of that bunch.
I like Ferrell's game a good bit. He's high energy, violent and consistently works a rush plan to win inside and outside as a rusher. He's a reliable run defender with solid technique and pro-ready size/strength, while also providing enough juice as a pass rusher to project to a three-down role in the NFL.
On the Locked on NFL Draft podcast this summer, I likened Ferrell to Vinny Curry with more potential if he cleans a few things up. He'll probably be a solid starter in the NFL at worst, but is there the ceiling to be more than that? Can he be a double-digit sack guy?
I'm not sure. I always leave the door open for players to get better, especially ones with as many traits and abilities as Ferrell possesses. But athleticism doesn't typically improve much in college, and that's where I think he's lacking.
One player who isn't lacking in athleticism is Florida State junior edge defender Brian Burns. I think Burns is the best pass-rushing prospect in the ACC, and should be getting more hype than Ferrell right now. Here's why:
1. Pass Rush Athleticism: Flexibility
Pop on any tape of Ferrell, and you'll see one of my big concerns with him. He really struggles to corner consistently. If he doesn't hit his hands perfectly, he gets run upfield a lot and can't impact the pocket. Ferrell is tight in the hips and doesn't have the flexibility to drop his pads at the top of the arc.
Not so with Brian Burns. The junior has incredibly fluid hips to swivel away from punches or dip under them at the top of the arc. He's incredibly hard to hit as a result, as he reduces his surface area on a consistent basis to give offensive tackles a frustratingly small target.
Burns' hands aren't quite as violent as Ferrell's but he still shows the ability to use cross-chops and swats to trim the edge and make even tighter turns to the pocket. Combine that technique with his otherworldly fluidity and bend, and you have an edge-rushing prospect that will make life very difficult on opposing offensive tackles who don't have help on their outside hip.
2. Pass Rush Athleticism: First Step
This is actually an area where both players have some concerns. Burns false steps at times from a two-point stance, and needs to get settled in before the snap so that he can maximize his first step. Too often he's drifting around with ants in his pants and is late off the ball as a result.
Ferrell's issue is that he pops straight up out of his stance rather than out up the field, He's explosive in his initial movement off the ball, but doesn't consistently gain the ground you would hope that he would because his surge is up, not out.
The difference here is that Burns is more explosive and gains more ground out of a three-point stance than Ferrell does, as his first step concerns go away when he puts his hand in the dirt.
3. Inside/Outside Rush Ability
To me pass rush athleticism is broken up into two or three categories
1. How quickly a player gets out of his stance, with proper pad level, and climbs the arc
2. How well a player bends the edge, showing ankle or hip flexibility to trim a tight arc to the pocket
3. Less important, because it is almost always present if the first two are, but I also look for how quickly/fluidly a pass rusher can move side-to-side. This will allow them to set up edge rushes with inside jab steps before exploding for the corner, as well as counter back inside quickly against oversets.
To me, Burns does all three of those things better than Ferrell. That can be true, while still acknowledging that Ferrell is impressive in all three areas (except no. 2, where I have the most concerns). Both of these dudes are excellent at inside counters, but Burns speed and bend are going to open up way more opportunities for him to win inside. His unreal athleticism helps him take quick advantage of obvious oversets, plus great attention to detail on his inside spins too.
I like both players a lot, and it is fair to say that Ferrell has some advantages on Burns right now as well, although I think they are less important aspects of playing the position.
First, Ferrell is much bigger and more pro-ready in his body at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. Burns is listed 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, and although his size really doesn't show up as a major issue on tape, he'll need to get stronger for the NFL. 230-pound defenders don't play on the edge for a reason.
Second, Ferrell has better pass rush variety and his hands are a real asset. Burns is fine in this regard, but I'd definitely give the edge to Ferrell. He really knows how to make an offensive tackle work for his keep, stringing moves together brilliantly to get home.
The ACC is about to produce two studs that NFL teams will probably value in the first round. I think Ferrell will be a strong starter with 8-sack potential and impressive run defense while offering three-down capabilities. He may never be elite, but he'll play every down like it's his last and be an awesome presence in the locker room.
Burns on the other hand, has top five, straight-up-special potential. He's explosive, bendy, physical and works a pass rush plan with excellent creativity. He needs to get bigger, but right now there is very little he can't do at a high level off the edge. Double-digit sacks and future NFL stardom are in his wheelhouse if he can bulk up and produce at a high level this season.