CLEMSON — This year’s Super Bowl offered more proof that championship teams must possess a quality pass-rusher or two.
For that reason, Clemson defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson find themselves in the thick of first-round contention for the draft entering the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this weekend.
Lawson (25.5 tackles for a loss in 2015) and Dodd (23.5 TFLs) ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the nation in bringing down quarterbacks or ball-carriers behind the line of scrimmage in 2015.
“In a copycat league, anyone who watched the Denver Broncos completely dismantle the NFL’s highest-scoring offense (Carolina Panthers) in the Super Bowl had to be thinking, ‘I gotta get one of those,’ ” draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. wrote in an ESPN.com post Feb. 12 that labeled Dodd and Lawson two of the top three pass-rushers available in the 2016 NFL draft, April 28-30 in Chicago. “A great quarterback can get you into the playoffs, but teams that can disrupt those quarterbacks are getting to (and winning) the Super Bowl.”
In Kiper’s latest mock draft released Thursday, he has three Clemson products in the first round and two in the top 20: Lawson No. 17 to the Atlanta Falcons (to join former cohort Vic Beasley), Dodd No. 19 to the Buffalo Bills (coached by Rex Ryan, whose son Seth is Clemson’s holder) and cornerback Mackensie Alexander No. 30 to Carolina.
In an interesting twist, Lawson and Dodd now find themselves going head-to-head jockeying for draft position after being teammates for multiple years (and Beasley’s backups) under the tutelage of Clemson defensive ends coach Marion Hobby.
Asked on a teleconference Monday to differentiate between the two, Kiper said, “That’s a hard call. It’s a slim difference. I think workouts are going to be important; that’s going to determine whether you’re a mid first-round pick or maybe a late first-round pick.
“If you look at the body of work, you would go Lawson. If you look at this one year, and certainly the way he played in the championship game, you would go Dodd.”
Lawson was injured during Clemson’s College Football Playoff run, and Dodd, according to Kiper, was not facing an elite offensive tackle prospect for Alabama, “so that gave him an edge” in recording five tackles for loss in the national championship Jan. 11.
“If Dodd has significantly better workouts, maybe Dodd goes ahead even as a one-year wonder,” Kiper said. “If they’re equal, I think they go with Lawson over Dodd, because he’s done it over a longer period of time.”
As for Alexander, Kiper wants to see an official height measurement — “is he 5-9 or 5-10?,” he wondered aloud — and acknowledged Alexander has to prove some things at the combine.
“He’s a heck of a corner. Now, he had protection from the pass rush — he had Beasley two years ago and this year he had Dodd and Lawson,” Kiper said. “That quarterbacks stayed away from him as well, but he didn’t have an interception in his career. He needs to show the ball skills in workouts and the combine.”
Kiper labeled Alexander’s draft range as between No. 25 and 40, placing him in the late first or early second round in April’s draft.
NFL.com’s Mike Mayock ranks Lawson the third-best edge rusher in the draft, behind Ohio State’s Joey Bosa and Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence. Dodd is No. 5 on that same list.
Mayock tabbed Alexander the No. 3 cornerback prospect, trailing Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves. (Ramsey could also be considered a free safety.)
Walter Cherepinsky, creator of WalterFootball.com, is less bullish on Clemson’s elite prospects in his Feb. 17 mock draft. Cherepkinsky agrees with Kiper that Alexander could get drafted No. 30 overall by the Panthers, but banished Dodd and Lawson to the middle part of the second round. He has Dodd going No. 40 to the Giants and Lawson No. 42 to the Dolphins.
Strong safety Jayron Kearse has a third-round grade, per Kiper, while free safety T.J. Green will have to work his way into a late-round selection.
While those five players mentioned above declared early for the draft, Kiper had kind words for Clemson’s leading tackler this season: graduated linebacker B.J. Goodson.
“I was impressed with Goodson. I like what I’ve seen of him,” Kiper said. “He instinctively flows to the football, and I think he could be a good fifth- or sixth-round pick.”
Lawson, Dodd, Alexander, Kearse, Goodson and Green will be joined at this weekend’s combine by former Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader and wide receiver Charone Peake, who each participated in the Senior Bowl in January.