Clemson Sugar Bowl post game press conference.


Last week, ahead of the Sugar Bowl, Clemson redshirt sophomore defensive end Clelin Ferrell deflected questions about his pending decision on the National Football League Draft.

Ferrell vaulted to the top half of draft projections in two seasons. He has first-round talent…and two additional years of eligibility. Considering his favorable forecast, most observers and analysts expect Ferrell to forgo that eligibility and declare for the draft.

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Yet, he has not yet revealed his decision. Understandably, his attention was focused elsewhere. As Clemson prepared to face Alabama in New Orleans, Ferrell justifiably swatted away the repeated NFL declaration question like it was an overmatched tackle.

Alabama abruptly curtailed Clemson’s season. Clemson will spend time mourning the loss and reflecting on the accomplishments of this season. Then, their attention will quickly turn toward next season.

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The composition of the roster is contingent on the decisions Ferrell and several other Tigers will soon announce.

Two other defensive line starters, junior tackle Christian Wilkins and junior end Austin Bryant, are also expected to declare for the draft. Starting tackle Dexter Lawrence would be an early first-rounder, but as a sophomore, he must remain in college for at least one more season.

Like Ferrell, Wilkins and Bryant are projected to be selected in the first round. Unless their personal ambitions include pursuit of a second national championship ring or an individual trophy, there is little left for them to prove or achieve in college.

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Wilkins already earned his bachelor’s degree. For other players, graduation is certainly important but not necessarily urgent. Players who leave Clemson early are permitted to return at any time to complete their coursework.

Redshirt junior linebacker Kendall Joseph is projected to be selected later in the fourth or fifth round. He likely could improve his stock by returning for his final season of eligibility and producing another impressive campaign. Joseph averaged eight tackles per game this season.

One may assume losing those defensive leaders would force Clemson to retreat from its recent dominance, but that was also the assumption when Clemson lost Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony and Grady Jarrett in 2014, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Dodd, Mackensie Alexander, B.J. Goodson and D.J. Reader in 2015 and Cordrea Tankersley and Carlos Watkins last year.

No one should doubt that the Tigers will reload the defense, regardless of what it loses. Recruiting and development have been too strong and too steady.

On offense, junior receiver Deon Cain and junior offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt have been projected as early as the second round. Earlier in the season, Cain and Hyatt were surefire early departures.

Cain produced respectable figures— 58 receptions, 734 yards and six touchdowns—by most standards. However, many anticipated Cain to follow the lineage of explosive first-round receivers—Nuk Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams—that Clemson has produced recently.

Hyatt has not performed well against other NFL-caliber competition. He notably lost nationally televised battles against North Carolina State and Alabama.

Cain and Hyatt's projections may slip out of the second round, but they could dismiss any doubters and push into the first round with strong senior seasons at Clemson.

Redshirt junior offensive lineman Taylor Hearn has revealed his plans to declare for the draft, despite modest projections. Hearn also has earned his degree.

The other underclassmen must submit their declarations by Jan. 15.

Clemson produced 10 first-round draft picks through the 20 years before Dabo Swinney became head coach. Through the nine drafts of Swinney’s tenure, eight Tigers were selected in the first round.

Swinney's 10th draft could be Clemson's first with more than two first-rounders, but depending on the underclassmen's decisions, that feat may be postponed until Swinney's 11th draft.