They started over a year ago: the rumors that the venerable Clemson defensive line might indeed have four future first-round selections. The driving force behind every Clemson win -- and there were a whole lotta those -- they were more than just the best defensive line in all of college football. They were the best unit.
There was DT Christian Wilkins, potentially the "first defensive player off the board in the 2018 Draft." A top-10 player on ESPN boards for the entirety of the season, Wilkins' athleticism and motor as a 310-pounder illustrated a Round 1 projection and eventual impact at the coveted 3-tech in NFL defenses. Beside him reigned the 340-lb behemoth called Dexter Lawrence, who Todd McShay most recently sent to Atlanta in the Top-5 in a December mock draft. During the 2017 season, Lawrence continued to climb up and eventually over Wilkins' rankings, as his more natural fit at 0-tech led to better tape at Clemson, and teams fell for his strength and size.
The EDGEs were a different matter. It took an early-2017 explosion from Austin Bryant, the lesser known of the two, to really round out the whole idea of the Four Future Firsts. Over the first six games of 2017, Bryant totaled 5 sacks (4 in one nationally-televised game against Auburn) and 11 TFLs.
Bryant was a second-team All-ACC player in 2017; running mate Clelin Ferrell was a first-teamer, and he was the highest-ranked prospect among his peers. At 6-foot-5 and with vines for arms, you can't build 'em much better than Ferrell: and with his array of rush moves and multi-year production profile, dude was 3rd on Kyle's preseason big board, 14th on Jon's, 7th on Trevor's, and 3rd again on Joe's. Stud.
But as his running mates have fallen out of favor, so too has Ferrell himself seen the strength of class catch up to him. This, from Jon earlier this week, caught my eye to that effect:
It isn't so much that Ferrell has been bad this season -- he hasn't! But Brian Burns has taken a step forward with his unteachable flexibility and cornering quickness; same with Jachai Polite's explosiveness and surface area reduction; same with Josh Allen's first-step explosiveness and use of hands. Ferrell has been good for longer than the three names listed, but he didn't leave when he peaked -- and now he's stuck in a thicker class of rushers than he would have faced last season.
Same goes for Wilkins, who really peaked in 2016 and has been struggling to live up to the hype since. The positional fluidity along Clemson's defensive line doesn't help in the slightest: it bites into Wilkins' numbers and forces you to project his role as a 3-tech a bit. But he's now joining a class with elite names floating around the DT position: Alabama's Quinnen Williams; Houston's Ed Oliver; and Mississippi State's Jeffery Simmons. Wilkins might fit himself into the next tier of players at the position, but he's no first-round lock. And Lawrence? It's tough to sell me on the space-eating 340-pounder in today's league as a first-round pick -- and for those of you bringing up Vita Vea from last season, Vea brought significantly more as a pass-rusher.
And Bryant? His athleticism will get him drafted on Day 2, but he doesn't have the slightest chance at Round 1 in this class. I'd be shocked to see three go. Two would make a little more sense (Wilkins and Ferrell) and is probably the best bet. Ferrell, even in this thick EDGE class, is still a Round 1 lock.
In reality, this line of Four Future Firsts was always a construction of the media and not teams. Much like the hype on Tua Tagovailoa, who was just recently compared to Mike Vick and Steve Young, or the love of high-school stud recruits like Michigan's Rashan Gary and Ole Miss' Greg Little who never panned out, we get wrapped up in yesteryear's impressions and big-name programs. It filters our view of their tape and skews our name recognition biases.
To have four NFL picks on a defensive line alone is tremendous; to have three of them Draft-eligible and likely Round 1 selections in the 2018 draft, and retain all three, almost transcends belief. An absolute coup worked by Dabo and his staff -- and a huge part of the reason they're back competing in the National Championship.
Last year, Clemson caught Alabama in the semifinal Sugar Bowl -- and as you'd imagine, it was their stiffest competition of the season. Ferrell struggled to impact the game against Alabama stud LT Jonah Williams. Wilkins struggled to penetrate against both the run and the pass. Lawrence had little impact on the game, and won't play due to a failed drug test that also kept him out of the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame. Bryant honestly had the most positive game of the four.
The biggest battle to watch will be Ferrell against Williams, as some quality wins against the clubhouse leader for OT1 would help Ferrell worm his way into that thick tier of Top-15 rushers that Jon illustrated above. While this Clemson defensive line is no worse than they were last season, the narrative surrounding their NFL futures has drastically shifted. Lawrence has the drug suspension; Bryant's hype train is nowhere to be found; Wilkins is fading into a thick class and Ferrell must be wondering what could have been in the 2018 class.
But they also must be thinking that this is the reason they returned: to win another ACC championship and get their shot against Alabama. All four were members of the 2016-2017 championship squad, and I'm sure all four would like to taste the cup once again, one final time. Perhaps they turn in the dominant performance that had all the broadcasters and personalities prognosticating a first round rife with Clemson pass rushers; perhaps they turned up the heat enough to cook Alabama's unstoppable 2018 offense.
The sun has turned away from the Clemson Tigers' defensive line, the best unit in the country. On Monday, they need it to smile on them one last time.