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Yahoo Sports' top 2019 NFL draft prospects, No. 23: Clemson DT Christian Wilkins

Eric Edholm
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Leading up to the 2019 NFL draft, which starts April 25, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down 10 at a time, followed by profiles on our top 30 overall players.

Previous entries: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-61 | 60-51 | 50-41 | 40-31 | 30. Drew Lock | 29. Deandre Baker | 28. Taylor Rapp | 27. Garrett Bradbury | 26. Dexter Lawrence | 25. Jerry Tillery | 24. Josh Jacobs

23. Clemson DT Christian Wilkins

6-foot-3, 315 pounds

Key stat: In addition to finishing his 59-game career with 40.5 tackles for loss (for minus-168 yards) and 16 sacks on defense, Wilkins also rushed four times for 13 yards and two touchdowns and caught two passes for 32 yards and one score.

The skinny: Wilkins was a five-star Rivals recruit and a top-25 player nationally in the class of 2015 when he had the top programs in the country – Alabama, Ohio State, Stanford and about two dozen more schools – making the trek up to Suffield Academy in northern Connecticut to woo him to their programs. He settled on Clemson and became an instant contributor, being named a freshman All-American with a stunning 84 tackles (4.5 for loss) and two sacks in 15 games (one start), even making 10 tackles in only 35 snaps vs. Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl that season.

Clemson's Christian Wilkins celebrates after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama (AP Photo)
Clemson's Christian Wilkins celebrates after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama (AP Photo)

As a sophomore in 2016, Wilkins was named third-team AP All-American and second-teams all-ACC in the Tigers’ first national championship season during his stay. Having switched that season to defensive end, Wilkins racked up 13 tackles for loss, 10 passes defended (a school record for defensive linemen) and 3.5 sacks in starting all 15 games. In 2017 as a junior, he was named a permanent team captain after switching positions again (back to primarily being a defensive tackle) and logged 8.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in starting all 14 games.

Wilkins returned to school for his senior season – despite graduating in an incredible 2.5 years, the first scholarship player in program history to earn his degree that quickly – and turned in a banner year, being named unanimous first-team AP All-American and first-team all-ACC and was a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy, the Outland Trophy finalist and the Bednarik Award. He made 15 tackles for loss, six sacks and two forced fumbles, helping Clemson win its second national title in three seasons. Wilkins, who will turn 24 in December, declined an invitation to the Senior Bowl for reasons unrelated to injury.

Upside: Elite personal and football character – nothing short of an ambassador for the Clemson program and a player who instantly will become a respected member of an NFL team and his community. Exhibited outstanding leadership traits, especially after the controversial switch last season from Kelly Bryant to Trevor Lawrence at QB, helping bring the team together at that point last season.

Won the prestigious William V. Campbell Trophy (aka the Academic Heisman) in 2018, awarded for work in the classroom, in the community and on the field. He also won various other community service and academic awards and was a finalist for others. Check out Wilkins’ terrific speech from the Campbell Trophy, which gives a glimpse into his intelligence, humor, candor and selflessness:

On the field, Wilkins is a diverse, versatile defender who can help a team in a variety of ways. Has lined up at end (even as a stand-up rusher) as well as tackle extensively and can be effective on all three downs. Special-teams contributor – lined up as punt protector, caught and run for first downs on fake punts and has blocked field-goal and extra-point tries. Also has moonlighted on offense as a fullback and tailback and is willing to contribute in any way. Fun, energetic player who can keep things light and meld into any type of locker room readily.

Gifted athlete for a big man, befitting of a four-year prep varsity basketball player. Dancing bear with great agility and active feet and hands. Good initial punch and upper-body strength (28 bench-press reps at the combine). Loose-limbed and flexible – stays on his feet and keeps his balance. Slippery rusher who takes good angles and finds his way into the backfield with regularity. Keeps pads down and can head up – hard to reach block. Finds the ball. Rarely out of his gap – assignment-sound player. Seals off cutback lanes on the backside well. Tracks down ballcarriers with hustle plays. Good field awareness and football IQ. Not scheme-specific – can contribute in a number of techniques on just about any front.

Motor runs hot for four quarters. Production was consistently strong all four seasons despite a position switch. Came up in big games consistently. Great stamina – averaged 45.3 snaps per game over his final three seasons and had several games with 70-plus snaps. Never missed a game in his career. High-floor prospect – not a lot of bust factor involved, and one scout we spoke to said Wilkins was about as easy a write-up as he could remember. Not a lot of mystery or guesswork to his projection to the NFL.

Downside: Stumpy frame with short arms. Lack of good DL length could restrict him in schemes where he’s asked to two-gap and hold the point. Sub-par testing numbers at the combine and middling 3-cone drill time at his pro day. Could stand to develop more core and lower-body strength. Can get washed out by combo blocks and interior doubles.

Benefited from playing on one of the best defensive lines in recent college memory. Was most effective as a three-technique rusher past two seasons. Not an elite penetrator – interior rush moves could be better calibrated and timed up. Was guilty of some defensive holds on screen plays that referees missed. Might not be the jack of all trades in the NFL that he was in college. Needs to gain more consistency as a run defender. Was seen grabbing the backside of Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel in the 2015 college football playoffs in what was deemed a strange and dirty play.

Best-suited destination: Although we believe Wilkins could fit into just about any system in the NFL, he might be most successful as an upfield three-technique in a slanting, attacking four-man front where he’s asked to shoot gaps and make plays laterally. His high marks for character make him an especially safe selection, and he has enough versatility to be useful as a showcase special-teamer or special-package offensive contributor near the goal line. Among the teams that could be a strong fit for Wilkins include the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Rams.

Fun fact: Where to begin? One of college football’s most charismatic players in recent years, Wilkins also has a great story off the field. He has spent time as a substitute teacher in the offseason for pre-K and kindergarten classes at a few schools in South Carolina and says he relates well to children.

Wilkins wore the No. 42 jersey in college to honor his grandfather, Eurie Stamps (born in 1942), who was killed when a SWAT team member’s rifle accidentally discharged during a raid of Stamps’ apartment in January of 2011 while they were trying to locate Stamps’ stepson and two of his friends who were accused of selling drugs from the apartment. Wilkins had spent time living with Stamps and his stepfather in parts of middle school and high school and says he tries to carry on his grandfather’s legacy and draw strength and courage from him when times get tough.

Wilkins also was a four-year high school starter in basketball and one of four 1,000-point scorers in his team’s history. One of the other four was former NBA shooting guard Vinny Del Negro.

They said it: Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables last November on what Wilkins meant to him personally and to the program:

Player comp: Shades of Grady Jarrett and Sheldon Richardson

Expected draft range: First-round pick

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