The Jacksonville Jaguars spent too many AFC South Sundays suffering from the exploits of former Clemson stars DeAndre Hopkins and Deshaun Watson as Houston Texans teammates. They invested heavily in Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, ex-Tigers picked in the first round of a 2021 NFL draft likely to pay off for years.
It hasn’t been nearly as easy to predict NFL stardom for prominent Clemson players on the other side of the football.
Twelve former Tigers on defense were drafted in the first or second rounds of NFL drafts from 2015-2020 and, so far, the lone Pro Bowl appearance among them was turned in by edge rusher Vic Beasley, widely considered a pro football disappointment.
Injuries play a huge part in NFL success. Linebacker Stephone Anthony, the Saints’ first-round pick in 2015, had trouble staying on the field early in his career and has had trouble finding work lately.
Three 2019 first-round picks — Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence — are off to good starts as defensive line starters the last two seasons.
But it’s fair to agree with fans and analysts that label Anthony and 2016 second-round picks Kevin Dodd (zero NFL years as a primary starter) and Mackensie Alexander (one year as a primary starter) as busts.
The Bills surely want a do-over on 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson.
T.J. Green, a 2016 second-round pick, might become a regular starter for the Colts. But Indy fans hoped for more impact earlier.
One Pro Bowl appearance for 12 recent players picked in the first or second rounds over a combined 42 NFL seasons is way below the league average.
True, less heralded Clemson prospects such as fifth-round picks Grady Jarrett (two Pro Bowls) and D.J. Reader have absolutely over-achieved.
But when NFL execs must beware of spending high draft picks on people who play defense for Clemson, it’s a pattern worth explaining.
It’s also more of a positive thing for Clemson than a negative.
It shows how the power of great recruiting and superior player development when meshed with a mastermind defensive coordinator such as Brent Venables, good assistant coaches and a refined in-game scouting system can make players look just a little better as college prospects than they turn out to be as pro players.
Such a notion is as old as elite teamwork itself.
Saban, Coach K, Dean Smith
Some players from college programs with top coaches and lots of stars tend to struggle when not surrounded by outstanding support on mediocre pro teams.
Alabama has won six national championships under Nick Saban, a cutting-edge teacher of football obstruction with particular expertise in pass defense. This CEO still works closely with Tide cornerbacks.
And yet only one of Saban’s Alabama cornerbacks has made an NFL Pro Bowl, per al.com, and that was the Ravens’ Marlon Humphrey in 2019 and 2020.
It’s not just football.
Legendary head coach Dean Smith and his great staff of assistants (Roy Williams, Eddie Fogler, Bill Guthridge and more) helped many North Carolina basketball players become top NBA draft prospects.
That Michael Jordan guy.
And James Worthy and Bob McAddo.
But pro teams also were fooled into thinking the likes of Tommy LaGarde, Dudley Bradley, Mike O’Koren, Al Wood, Joe Wolf and J.R. Reid were first-round picks that might become future all-stars.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Co. sent Cherokee Parks, Roshown McLeod, Trajan Langdon, William Avery and Dahntay Jones to the NBA as first-round picks. They got rich.
Combined All-Star Game appearances: None.
Venables, 50, started as Clemson defensive coordinator in 2012. He is getting $2.4 million this year as a reward for a vital role in winning two national titles during a College Football Playoff run that’s six years and counting.
Here is Clemson’s 2015-2020 NFL draft history on defense in the first and second rounds, including NFL draft years, players, rounds, Pro Bowls from 2015-2021 and number of years as primary NFL starter from 2015-2021 (per profootballreference.com):
2015: 1st round – LB Vic Beasley, Falcons (1 Pro Bowl, 5 years as starter); LB Stephone Anthony, Saints (0 Pro Bowls, 1 year as starter)
2016: 1st round – DL Shaq Lawson, Bills (0 Pro Bowls, 1 year as starter)
2nd round – DL Kevin Dodd, Titans (0 Pro Bowls, 0 years as starter); CB Mackensie Alexander, Vikings (0 Pro Bowls, 0 years as starter); S T.J. Green, Colts (0 Pro Bowls, 0 years as starter)
2019: 1st round – DL Clelin Ferrell, Raiders (0 Pro Bowls, 2 years as starter); DL Christian Wilkins, Dolphins (0 Pro Bowls, 2 years as starter); DL Dexter Lawrence, Giants (0 Pro Bowls, 2 years as starter)
2nd round – CB Trayvon Mullen, Raiders (0 Pro Bowls, 2 years as starter)
2020: 1st round – LB Isaiah Simmons, Cardinals (0 Pro Bowls, 0 years as starter); CB A.J. Terrell, Falcons (0 Pro Bowls, 1 year as starter)
Combined Pro Bowl selections for all 12 of those guys: 1. Beasley made it in 2016, his second season with Atlanta when he led the NFL with 15½ sacks.
Beasley has 18 sacks over the last four seasons, the last of which was split between not contributing much for either the Titans or Raiders.
Google “Vic Beasley” and “bust” and see if you detect a theme.
Clemson vs. NFL average
Or, relatively speaking …
The 12 Clemson players picked in the first or second rounds from 2015-2020 have a total 42 seasons among them, and just one Pro Bowl. That's a .023 Pro Bowl-per-season percentage
For all 191 players picked in the first or second rounds from 2015-2020 (667 total seasons): 39 Pro Bowls, .058 percentage.
While nine players picked in the first or second round in 2019 have already made the Pro Bowl, it’s certainly too early to judge long-term impacts for Ferrell, Wilkins and Lawrence.
Same goes for Simmons and Terrell (two 2020 first-round picks made the Pro Bowl last year – former Clemson playoff foes Chase Young of Ohio State and Justin Jefferson of LSU).
Shaq Lawson is on his third team already, the Texans. Decent career. Big money. More potential.
Not a good idea for Buffalo as a first-round pick.
The Bills didn’t have good luck with Clemson first-rounders C.J. Spiller or Sammy Watkins, either.
But, for now, the Tigers’ recent record of early-round NFL draft value on offense is way ahead of defense. These two shiny new Jaguars might work out, too.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff