Late last fall, when I started compiling reports for the Pro Football Weekly 2018 NFL Draft Guide, one of the first defensive linemen I wrote up was Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. The thinking around the National Football League was that it was just about a sure thing that Wilkins would enter the draft.
He surprised many when in mid-January he announced he would be back for another season.
My thinking at the time was it was a wise decision for Wilkins because although he has tremendous talent, the consistency of his play dropped off from 2016 to 2017. Now that he’s back for another year, he just might dominate in 2018.
Wilkins is in his fourth year at Clemson but has already graduated. He completed his degree requirements last December and graduated in just two and a half years, something no other Clemson player has done in the past. Wilkins is plenty smart enough to play defensive tackle in the NFL.
Looking at his career, he has been a contributing player his entire time at Clemson. In 2015 as a freshman he only started one game but played well over 400 snaps in the defensive line rotation. He finished the season with 84 tackles and 2 sacks.
In 2016 Wilkins had his best year to date and was a Nagurski Trophy finalist. That year he started 15 games, had 56 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. With the season he had in 2016, many felt he would be a dominating player in 2017.
His numbers in 2017 were comparable to 2016 (53 tackles, 8.5 TFLs and 4.5 sacks) but I didn’t feel he was the presence on the field that he was in 2016. In 2016 he controlled the line of scrimmage, but last year there were times when he was slow off blocks, lacked consistent top hand use and I didn’t see the down-after-down consistency I saw in ’16.
On the positive side, Wilkins — who is about 6034 – 300 — is an excellent athlete with quickness and speed, light on his feet, can change direction and is both strong and powerful. He shows very good initial quickness and has top instincts. When he wants, Wilkins can toy with blockers, get to the ball and make the play. His inside pass-rush traits are as good as anyone in college football
Clemson will have perhaps the best defensive line in college football in 2018 with Wilkins, defensive end Clelin Ferrell and defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. All could be premium-round draft choices. Wilkins now has to compete just to be the best defensive lineman on the Clemson squad, let alone one of the better linemen in the country.
That said, this is an important year for Wilkins as far as scouts are concerned. He has the athleticism and versatility to play several positions. In a 4-man front he can be a 3-technique or a left end. In a 3-man front he will be a 5-tech. At Clemson he has played both inside and outside and showed he was capable of playing well regardless of where he lined up. What we want to see this year is consistently dominant play down after down and game after game. If that happens he has a chance to be a very high draft choice next April.