CLEMSON — The pipeline from upstate South Carolina to western New York is alive and well.
Former Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson was selected by the Buffalo Bills with the No. 19 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft Thursday night, the fourth straight year the Bills have tabbed a former Tiger to join their franchise.
Becoming the 21st Tiger to be taken with a top-20 pick in school history, Lawson decided to forego his senior year at Clemson.
According to OvertheCap.com, the No. 19 pick is slotted to sign a four-year contract worth $10.2 million, including a $5.6 million signing bonus.
Clemson products are all over the Bills’ recent draft history: linebacker Tony Steward went in the sixth round last year, Watkins was the fourth overall pick in 2014 and safety Jonathan Meeks was a 2013 fifth-rounder. Meeks and Watkins remain on the team, while Steward was released this month and signed by the Patriots.
Second-year Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan is an avid Clemson fan – his son, Seth, is a walk-on wide receiver for the Tigers.
“I’m heading to Buffalo, but I’m hanging with Rex Ryan now, and he’s ‘All In,’ like we do at Clemson,” Lawson told ESPN’s Suzy Kolber on the Auditorium Theatre stage in Chicago, with a wide smile on his face. “So it feels like I’m at home.”
Lawson led college football with 25.5 tackles for a loss in 2015, helping Clemson top the nation in that category as a team for a third consecutive season. Lawson missed critical moments during the Orange Bowl with a shoulder injury, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday the Bills believe Lawson will eventually require shoulder surgery sidelining him for 4-6 months, perhaps after his rookie season.
This makes the fourth consecutive year Clemson has been represented in the first round of the NFL draft — a feat replicated only by Alabama, Florida and Florida State. Vic Beasley was taken eighth overall by the Atlanta Falcons and linebacker Stephone Anthony went No. 31 to the New Orleans Saints in the 2015 draft; Watkins (No. 4, Bills, 2014) and receiver DeAndre Hopkins (No. 27, Texans, 2013) were first-rounders in prior years.
This is just Clemson’s second stretch of back-to-back years with defensive players in the first round since 1999. Cornerback Tye Hill and defensive end Gaines Adams were first-rounders in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Lawson is Clemson’s ninth defensive end taken in the past 11 NFL drafts, and the program’s 24th first-round selection.
There were no Clemson or Alabama players selected in the first half of the first round, a drought broken up by Crimson Tide center Ryan Kelly to the Colts at No. 18. The last time the defending national champion and runner-up did not produce a top-16 selection in the ensuing draft was 2009, regarding Florida and Oklahoma.
Top Tigers prospects who will have to wait one more night to hear their name called include defensive end Kevin Dodd, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety T.J. Green.
Dodd, like Lawson, was among the 25 NFL Draft prospects attending the festivities in Chicago.
It’s somewhat of a disappointing night for Clemson, which in many mock drafts figured to have a better first round. Lawson had been a popular option at or near the No. 10 spot, while Dodd, Alexander and Green were all listed as first-round candidates by multiple prognosticators.
The second and third rounds will take place Friday, beginning at 7 p.m. Rounds 4-7 start Saturday at noon.