Yahoo Sports' top 2019 NFL draft prospects, No. 26: Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence

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. Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence

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6-foot-4, 342 pounds

Key stat: Lawrence finished his Clemson career with 162 tackles (20 for loss), 11 sacks, 43 QB pressures, five pass breakups, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries in 40 games (36 starts and a total of 1,541 snaps played).

The skinny: Rivals’ No. 2 overall prospect in the 2016 class, Lawrence was nothing short of an elite recruit coming out of high school in Wake Forest, N.C. – even more hyped than prep teammate Bryce Love – after a 28-sack career, including 13 as a senior. Lawrence had 32 known offers, and he chose Clemson over most of college football’s blueblood schools, including Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Florida and many more. Ironically, Lawrence’s mom had her car totaled on their visit to Clemson, and she vowed never to return to that town, but things changed eventually.

As a true freshman in 2016, Lawrence was named to several Freshman All-America teams, was awarded ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year by both the media and coaches and was named second-team All-ACC after collecting 79 tackles (9.5 for loss) and a freshman-record seven sacks in 15 games (11 starts). In 2017, he was a first-team All-ACC pick – despite preseason foot surgery that left him with numbness in his toes – with 39 tackles (three for loss), 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 12 starts.

In his final season before declaring for the NFL draft, Lawrence collected 44 tackles (7.5 for loss), 1.5 sacks and even one 2-yard rushing touchdown in 13 starts, being named first-team all-ACC. But Lawrence was suspended for Clemson’s two playoff games after reportedly testing positive for ostarine, which is considered a performance-enhancing drug. Lawrence claimed that he didn’t knowingly ingest the substance, and he said he has passed the NFL scouting combine drug test since then.

Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (90) works against Georgia Tech. (AP Photo)
Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (90) works against Georgia Tech. (AP Photo)

Lawrence, who turns 22 in November, pulled up after his 40-yard dash and had to skip the remainder of his combine drills following a quadriceps injury. He did not run at his pro day, proclaiming he was “90 percent” healthy at that point. His mother, Julia Parker, ran track at Arkansas-Pine Bluff; his father, Dexter Sr., was a linebacker at Arkansas State; and his younger bother, Devon, was a four-star recruit running back who redshirted his first season of college at North Carolina.

Upside: Freakish upper-body strength – performed 36 bench-press reps with nearly 35-inch arms, an almost unheard-of ratio. Sheer mass to dominate in the run game, stack up smaller interior offensive linemen and hold his ground completely. Prone to double teams but nearly impossible to move – gets rooted to a spot, leans in and swallows gaps. Scheme wrecker who will dominate some blockers off the snap.

Has the natural stacking ability to be a two-gap defender but isn’t scheme specific. Can play on the interior in any type of front. Occasionally kicked outside in specific fronts and was able to harness his momentum to be an effective edge setter the way Vince Wilfork or Haloti Ngata did in the NFL.

Unusual combination of mass, power and movement skills for such a large man. Heavy but not fat – nicely developed mass on his frame without too much additional heft. Still managed to run an impressive 5.05-second 40 (with a 1.76-second 10-yard split) despite pulling up lame at the end. Surprisingly quick and smooth when asked to move laterally. Has a natural feel for the game and uses his frame well. Doesn’t try to be a finesse rusher but actually possesses some pass-rush upside. Has mastered the power rush pretty well, but also has shown long-arm, hump and bull rushes inside and mixes things up fairly well.

Seemed to play his best in the bigger games, especially in title run his freshman season. Appears unafraid to take on a lunch-pail role and doesn’t freelance. Was healthier and more quick in 2018 than in 2017 and showed better stamina prior to combine injury. Has some special-teams value – blocked three kicks in his career. In addition to a 2-yard TD run, Lawrence also lined up as a bulldozing fullback and could save a team a roster spot with this role for a handful of snaps per game.

Downside: Lawrence was viewed as a can’t-miss prospect following a brilliant freshman season, matching his immeasurable high-school hype, but his freshman tape was his best of his three seasons. Didn’t dominate as much as you would have expected the past two seasons and was not the same level of playmaker he was in 2016. Played on extremely talented line with four future NFL players, including two other likely first-rounders (DT Christian Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell), and didn’t win enough single-blocking assignments.

Had some sub-par outings against two fine center prospects in the 2019 draft class, North Carolina State’s Garrett Bradbury and Texas A&M’s Erik McCoy, as well as a mid-round guard prospect, Phillip Haynes from Wake Forest. Lawrence didn’t always match blockers’ power the way you expected and struggled with linemen who used advanced hand technique.

Tape across the board is hot and cold – not yet a complete product. Interior pass rush value will be low entering the NFL. Doesn’t possess enough anything resembling a countermove – if he gets stopped initially, it’s usually a stalemate. Too reliant on his mass at times and doesn’t harness his entire power or leverage. Stamina could be a concern – averaged only 38.5 snaps per game in his three seasons and just under 36 snaps per game his final two.

Teams still are trying to gather information about his positive drug test and determine whether he truly loves football.

Best-suited destination Most NFL teams have someone on their roster who is asked to fill a role like the one Lawrence would be best-served to handle and that’s to clog the middle and muck up blocking schemes over the center or as a shaded nose. With the right refinement, a confident defensive coordinator could use Lawrence as a 5-technique to shut down a heavily one-direction run game.

But basically, it’s smart not to overthink Lawrence and what he is. There are few players his size to begin with, and that list shrinks considerably with the number of men that size who move as well as he does. Lawrence should fit most every scheme, but the teams that could value him most might include the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Tennessee Titans, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.

Fun fact: Basketball, not football, was Lawrence’s first love and it actually took quite a bit of convincing for him to switch focus on the sports at one point. He actually became a bit disenchanted with football and was spending more time playing AAU hoops as a 6-3, 280-pound power hoops standout early in his high-school career.

“I thought I was a natural baller,” Lawrence said, via the Charlotte Observer.

“If he would have kept up his basketball,” Parker said, “I really think he could have played in the NBA.”

They said it: “I feel like I call myself a once-in-a-decade type of player. I feel like just my rare abilities at that and then I feel like the way I try to master the game, the way I try to master my techniques, it's just different, a lot of guys. I work on my weaknesses every day. Just to improve on areas in my game that I know that can make me great. A lot of players are good, but I want to be great.”

— Lawrence, at the combine

Player comp: Linval Joseph

Expected draft range: Late first- or early-second-round pick

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