After starting the season off with eight consecutive wins, the Clemson Tigers dropped four of their final six contests—including a 70-33 romp at the hands of West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl.
However, the Tigers have the talent to bounce back from last season’s disappointing finish. In fact, some of that talent will even be headed to the NFL when their collegiate playing days are over.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Clemson has produced 173 NFL players in the program’s rich, 100-plus-season history. There are 23 former Tigers in the league today, representing 16 different teams.
Defensive end Andre Branch, tight end Dwayne Allen, defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh were all selected out of Clemson in the 2012 NFL draft. It would not be surprising if that trend continues into future drafts.
The Tigers will be adding to the above totals very shortly, as their current superstars move on to the next level. This article will rank Clemson’s top six NFL-ready players in 2012.
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins is not even eligible for the 2013 NFL draft since he’s a true sophomore, but he’s still Clemson’s most NFL-ready talent.
Watkins was explosive as a pass-catcher and as a return man during his freshman campaign, and he’s poised for another dominant season in 2012.
Watkins had a team-leading 82 receptions for 1219 yards last season. His 13 all-purpose touchdowns (12 receiving, one kick return) were the most on the team. In addition to becoming the first freshman in ACC history to be named an AP First-Team All-American, Watkins was also named National Freshman of the Year by the Columbus Touchdown Club.
Watkins has a versatile skill set that NFL teams will be clamoring for once he’s finally eligible. Until then, he will be tearing up the field, stat sheet and record book for the Clemson Tigers.
Clemson won a lot of games with their fantastic aerial assault last season, but they were also a very solid team on the ground. Running back Andre Ellington led the charge for the Tigers’ rushing attack in 2011, but pretty soon he may be crashing an NFL backfield.
Ellington rushed for 1,178 yards on 223 carries last season. He was one of only four ACC running backs to rush for over 1,000 yards in 2011, but it’s Ellington’s nose for the end zone that makes him such an appealing prospect. He has had 25 rushing touchdowns in his career (one receiving), which includes back-to-back double-digit totals in 2010 and 2011.
While Ellington certainly has NFL skill, he lacks NFL size. He can afford to bulk up his current 190-pound frame, since he will not be able to rely on his speed as heavily at the professional level.
Even though Watkins may have stolen the show last season, there’s no doubting junior wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins’ talent. The two make up one of the country’s most dynamic receiving duos, but unlike Watkins, Hopkins will actually be eligible for the 2013 NFL draft.
Hopkins chased Watkins all season, finishing with 10 less receptions (72) and 241 less yards (978). He lacks the big play potential and explosion that Watkins possesses and so often boasts, but he has reliable hands—and that’s something pro scouts will like to see.
Hopkins, who has had solid seasons in each of his two years with the Tigers, looks to break out as a junior. Playing in Watkins’ shadow last season should motivate Hopkins to play even better in 2012, which will in turn cause his NFL stock to rise.
Clemson also has some NFL-caliber talent on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive end Mallicaiah Goodman was a solid cog in the Tigers’ defense last season, and he could play an even larger role in his senior campaign.
Goodman plays large (6’4”/280 lbs. with hands that require size XXXXL gloves), so he may lack the speed and explosion off the edge that many talent scouts will be looking for in a defensive end. Statistically, Goodman had a lackluster junior season with four tackles for a loss and only 2.0 sacks despite playing 767 snaps.
But, ultimately, you can’t teach size—and Goodman has plenty of that. If he can have an impressive year statistically in 2012, his draft value could leapfrog those of Ellington and Hopkins.
Senior center Dalton Freeman will anchor an offensive line that will undergo a bit of reconstruction this coming fall. He will play a pivotal role in picking up the blitz, and will add an invaluable element of experience to the Tigers' O-line.
Freeman has been a mainstay in the Clemson offense since he became the full-time starter his freshman year. Since then, he has started 36 games, and even earned a First Team All-ACC honor last year as a junior. He also has great leadership qualities—which are traits that scouts like to see in any player—but especially in centers.
Although it will go unnoticed to the everyday fan, Freeman will be one of the Tigers’ most valuable players in 2012. However, you can bet that most NFL teams will notice. He will be one of the top centers in the upcoming draft, and some team will happily scoop him up.
If Watkins and Hopkins are such highly touted wide receivers, then the man throwing them the ball must also be an NFL-ready prospect. That seems to be the case with Clemson’s senior quarterback, Tajh Boyd.
Boyd threw for nearly 4,000 yards in his first season as the Tigers’ full-time starter. He completed an impressive 59.7 percent of his passes in 2011, and had an equally remarkable touchdown (33) to interception (12) ratio. He will be surrounded with some of the most dangerous weapons in the ACC next fall, and should make good use of them.
Boyd may not be an early-round pick like some of the aforementioned players, but barring a disastrous performance in 2012 or an off-field mishap, he should easily be a mid-round pick.
Whichever team selects Boyd will be getting a developmental quarterback with the potential to become a starter somewhere down the line.