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NFL Draft

Evaluating Clemson’s Top Draft-Eligible WRs

  • The Draft Network
  • July 1, 2021
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Clemson is a wide receiver factory for the NFL. 

The Tigers have seen 11 receivers get drafted to the NFL over the last nine years—and three times since 2014, Clemson has had multiple receivers picked in a single draft. This includes first-round selections in DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins, and Mike Williams in addition to Tee Higgins, who was the first pick of the second round (No. 33 overall) in 2020.

Entering the 2021 season, the Tigers are once again brimming with wide receiver talent but the group is also littered with question marks. As the baton at quarterback is passed from Trevor Lawrence to DJ Uiagalelei, it’s time for this new crop of pass catchers to sort itself out. 

I’ve spent time studying and evaluating the receivers this summer and they are all talented with the makings of being a go-to guy for Clemson and elevating their respective draft stocks along the way. When it comes to what the results look like when the targets come and which receivers prove to be the most consistent and reliable, the story will write itself once the games are played

But until that picture becomes more clear, let’s evaluate Clemson’s best draft-eligible receivers to get an idea of what Uiagalelei has to work with as he takes the reins of the Tigers offense and looks to continue the success of his predecessors. 

Justyn Ross

Collecting 1,000 receiving yards and nine touchdowns in 2018 and 865 yards with eight touchdowns in 2019, Ross is by far the most established receiver in the Clemson offense. With that said, he had surgery last offseason to repair a bulging disk in his spine that forced him to miss the entire 2020 season. Ross suffered a stinger during practice and a congenital fusion was found in his spine which led to the procedure.

Looking to get back on track in 2021, Ross has to shake off the rust and establish chemistry with Uiagalelei. Ross is 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds and features outstanding play strength. He wins with size and ball skills down the field while embracing a physical brand of football. He thrives in a possession-style role and really excels on the vertical plane.

The challenge for Ross is not only proving he is healthy and able to find his form, but demonstrating growth as a route-runner. His previous years at Clemson revealed only an average separator and he isn’t the most twitchy or agile receiver, so there are plenty of contested catch points that he has to navigate. Additionally, drops have been an issue, which is frustrating because he makes so many tough grabs through contact where he firmly plucks the football away from his frame.

Ross has proven he can be a productive college receiver and he’s the favorite to claim the most targets in 2021. Now he just needs to prove he’s healthy and build upon what he illustrated in 2018 and 2019.

Joseph Ngata

Ngata is another 5-star recruit among the Clemson wide receiver corps and is the first player from California to come to the Tigers since 1991 when he committed back in 2018. 

After it became known that Ross would miss 2020, Ngata’s breakout season was expected to come in 2020. Unfortunately, he suffered an abdomen injury in the season opener against Wake Forest which limited him in the coming weeks and he eventually had surgery to fix the issue and missed the final five games of the season.

While 2020 wasn’t what Ngata or the Tigers hoped for, the ability he showcased in 2018 and 2019 is exciting. In his touchdown catch against Lousiville in 2019, we saw the ability to climb the ladder and high point the football in a contested situation. On the back shoulder throw against Texas A&M in 2019, we saw an outstanding adjustment to the football and body control. On the quick slant vs. Ohio State in 2019, we saw exceptional hands, the ability to scoop the low throw, and the ability to hang on through contact. He big-boy’d Charlotte when they tried to jam him at the line of scrimmage. There were flashes of physicality, decisiveness, and tackle-breaking after the catch in the 2019 Georgia Tech game. In the 2019 Spring Game and Wake Forest game in 2020, I was quite impressed with his ability to adjust routes on the fly and find space in zone coverage. Overall, he’s a physical wide receiver with terrific size and outstanding speed for his stature.

Ngata is a favorite of head coach Dabo Swinney, who offered high praise for his receiver dating back to his true freshman season. 

“He’s as hard a worker as I’ve ever been around, seniors included,” Swinney said. “He’s one of the most focused, one of the most committed young people I have ever seen. It’s amazing to watch him work.”

The opportunity for Ngata to become a major factor for the Clemson offense is right in front of him and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him lead the Tigers in receiving in 2021 as a breakout star. But he still needs to prove it considering he has only caught 24 passes in his career on less than 450 snaps played.

Frank Ladson Jr.

A 5-star recruit out of Miami, Ladson Jr. has flashed some exciting traits across his first two seasons at Clemson. Another big-bodied receiver, Ladson Jr. is listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds and his acceleration skills are notable when watching him play. He quickly eats up cushion with his long strides and is able to get vertical. He has flashed terrific ball skills, body control, and the ability to extend his catch radius. Despite his height, I’m very impressed with his ability to sink his hips and snap through route breaks. His blend of size, speed, ball skills, and length make him primed to command a prominent role in the passing game for Clemson in 2021.

Expected to claim more market share of the targets in 2021, how he fares as a featured weapon will be telling. Entering the season, Ladson Jr. has only seen 49 targets and hauled in 27 of those for 409 yards and size touchdowns.

The biggest item I am looking for growth in from Ladson Jr. is being more effective at addressing contact as a route-runner. He had some challenges staying on schedule with his routes when corners wanted to be physical with him, so getting stronger and developing more technique to not get hung on contact or re-routed is critical.

Ladson Jr. has the makings of becoming a big-time playmaker for the Clemson offense and how he handles a larger role in 2021 will define his draft stock.

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