Want to know what type of person Clelin Ferrell is? His college defensive line coach, Todd Bates can help.
Clemson’s football team often went to a local movie theater before games, one of several team-building events the Tigers did during the season.
After one film, as the team prepared to head back to campus, Bates a took a final look inside the theater checking for stragglers.
Instead, he found Ferrell in the theater picking up trash, making sure the Tigers left the venue in better shape than they found it.
They say one’s character is defined by what one does when nobody is watching. Ferrell’s got it in spades and it’s what the Carolina Panthers will get at No. 16 overall in Thursday’s NFL Draft.
The Panthers’ locker room has been carefully curated by head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney, filled with high-character veterans who have paid that mentality forward to those willing to listen. The team can’t replace a player like Julius Peppers right away, nor is it fair to compare any rookie to a probable first-ballot Hall of Famer.
But Hurney can close out day one of the draft with one of its most consistent prospects. Carolina’s defensive line needs a producer on the edge, someone who can play outside linebacker in a pinch, and a high-character player the franchise won’t have to worry about off the field who would become a future leader in the locker room.
Ferrell checks each box.
Teams don’t spend first-round picks and several millions of dollars because a guy cleans up after himself; his on-field productivity has to match. Ferrell has plenty of that.
By the time his collegiate career ended under a shower of confetti at the College Football Championship Game, Ferrell had recorded 50.5 tackles for a loss and 27 sacks, one of just three players to put up those numbers during that span. Unlike Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech) and Sutton Smith (Northern Illinois), Ferrell did so against Power 5 competition — including NFL factories like Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame, and at least three SEC opponents each year.
Ferrell’s pre-draft season wasn’t as glitzy as fellow edge prospects like Montez Sweat and Brian Burns, both of whom wowed scouts and fans with uber-athletic performances at the NFL Scouting Combine and their respective pro days. Ferrell didn’t run drills at his pro day after the turf toe injury he played through in 2018 flared up — but the fact he out-produced both Sweat and Burns while playing hobbled deserves recognition.
Their perceived superior athleticism has led some fans to believe Sweat and Burns could bounce to outside linebacker more effectively than Ferrell. Bates thinks differently.
Clemson had enough talent at linebacker that Ferrell rarely left the trenches — although he did so on occasion. When asked if Ferrell is versatile enough to play outside linebacker, Bates was clear: “Definitely.”
“Cle can do all things on the edge,” Bates told the Observer. “Including outside backer.”
As for his off the field contributions, it wasn’t just the movie theater. Ferrell was a boisterous presence during Clemson’s charitable events throughout his career and even traveled to Costa Rica to help service communities in need.
The offspring of two military parents, Ferrell went to a military high school and played for a drill sergeant at Clemson in defensive coordinator Brent Venables. He’s used to a rigid system and thrived it, which should mesh with Rivera’s military background.
Ferrell also played with future NFL players like B.J. Goodson, Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson, working his way up from a young player eager to learn to a veteran presence his teammates look up to — the exact trajectory Carolina seeks in its locker room.
An example? After Alabama beat Clemson in the Sugar Bowl in 2018, Clemson football SID Tim Bourret sought a player to accompany Dabo Swinney to the podium — but his search didn’t last long. Ferrell approached him in the locker room and volunteered.
“That is leadership to the very end,” Bourret wrote on Twitter.
He’s not the sexy pick at No. 16 overall and you probably won’t have to scoop your jaw up from the floor after he runs the 40-yard dash. But Ferrell is consistent and he’s proven. His perceived ceiling may be lower than Sweat’s or Burns,’ but his floor appears higher — and that’s what Carolina needs right now, a player who can contribute immediately.
Improving a defense that aged quickly in 2018 is a high priority for Hurney and Rivera, to the point Rivera will call the Panthers’ defensive plays in 2019. They may not have time for Burns to add weight or Sweat to polish his athletic gifts. Ferrell can play right away — both physically at 6-foot-4, 264 pounds and mentally after playing in one of college football’s most complex defenses.
Oddly, despite Clemson’s proximity and the recent excellence of its program, the Panthers have never tapped into that market via the draft. That needs to end Thursday night with Clelin Ferrell.
Send the card, Marty.
Round 1: 8 p.m., Thursday (ABC, ESPN, NFLN)
Rounds 2-3: 7 p.m., Friday (ABC, ESPN/ESPN2, NFLN)
Rounds 4-7: Noon, Saturday (ABC, ESPN/ESPN2, NFLN)
Panthers Picks: Round 1 - 16th; round 2 - 47th; round 3 - 77th and 100th; round 4 - 115th; round 5 - 154th; round 6 - 187th.