I don’t follow college football and recruiting enough to have understood how it happened, and maybe to a degree we will never know precisely how it happened, but that could be why I find Clemson’s dominance since 2015 to be so intriguing. Rarely thinking of college football at all unless it’s for the draft, I’ll randomly catch myself researching the history of Dabo Swinney and his incredible accomplishments as a first-time head coach at Clemson.
When the Tigers were recruiting their 2016 freshman class, Swinney had just led them to their first number one ranking since 1981 (and prior to that they had never been number one) and a loss to Alabama in the national championship. The incoming freshman would experience the following over the next four years (if they stayed all four years):
Two national championships.
Four top-four finishes.
A number one ranking at some point in all four seasons.
Among Clemson’s 2016 freshman class was the five-star Dexter Lawrence, the four-star Trayvon Mullen, and the three-star Isaiah Simmons, all of whom have been drafted in the top 40 picks. One player who they did not obtain, but who they recruited and offered a scholarship to: the four-star receiver named Bryan Edwards.
He instead chose South Carolina and while I can’t imagine that the 2020 third round pick of the Las Vegas Raiders has any regrets about that, I myself can’t help but wonder the what if. What if Clemson got one more really good player? (He would have been teammates with Mike Williams, Hunter Renfrow, Tee Higgins, and Justyn Ross.)
(Though he may not have played with them on offense ...)
Instead he went to South Carolina and contributed immediately.
Bryan Edwards was a 6’3, 205 pound receiver prospect out of Conway High School in Conway, South Carolina. His talent was evident to some well before that, including Conway’s offensive coordinator, Carlton Terry.
Terry, then offensive coordinator at Conway High School, was watching the Tigers’ future on a middle school field.
“Every time he touched the field, he did something special,” Terry said while Rick James’ “Super Freak” played quietly from his computer. “Other than his size, his ability really stood out as a man among boys at that time. So we felt like he would be special when he hit high school.”
It was August 2015, Conway was coming off a 2-9 year and Tigers wide receivers coach Steve Parsley was looking for a sign of change in a preseason game.
“First play, it was a punt return and my man took that punt return to the house,” Parsley said while Schofield briefly took over his math class. “He made two, three cuts down the sideline and I said, ‘That’s it right there. Bryan is the truth.’
“He sparked our season.”
When he got to high school, teammates were quick to see the value he added too.
“Bryan’s biggest attribute other than just being so good was that people had to start double-teaming him because he would just take over football games,” said Peyton Derrick, Conway’s quarterback at the time. “Our goal was always to get Bryan as many touches as possible.”
Edwards caught 53 passes for 969 yards and nine touchdowns as a senior with that season ending early due to a knee injury.
“It was a freak thing,” Terry said. “We were lined up 2 by 2 and Bryan took off to go into a route and he just falls down. Of course we panicked. Our best player has gone down. We were hoping for the best, but kind of preparing for the worst.”
He was selected to the Shrine Bowl and the US Army All-American Game and he had a handful of offers from Division-I schools to choose from, including Clemson, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.
He was the sixth-ranked player in the state and while nobody ahead of him rings of significance to this post, Javon Kinlaw was ranked 11th. Nationally, Edwards was ranked as the 64th-best WR prospect in the country by Rivals with the top-ranked N’Keal Harry choosing Arizona State.
Edwards had been getting offers as early as 13 and committed to South Carolina at 16. Then de-committed. He spent time thinking over Clemson, but the Tigers wanted him to think about not playing with Williams, but instead joining the safeties. Then in December, 2015, Edwards re-committed to South Carolina, where they wanted to play receiver, and he was the first official member of the class for new head coach Will Muschamp. That year, Muschamp signed up at least one other player who has become a day one or day two draft pick: Javon Kinlaw.
Edwards worked it out with his coach, Chuck Jordan, a controversial figure who you can read about here if you’d like a detour, and that’s how he went with Muschamp.
“Yesterday (Monday) he was all torn up, he was struggling,” said Conway coach Chuck Jordan. “When he walked in the office today, I could tell he was a lot better. He said he wanted to be a Gamecock. I drilled him a little bit on it and he said, ‘Coach, it’s just a fit for me. I like where I fit at South Carolina. I like where the program is going and I’m comfortable with that, and that’s how I feel.’ We called Coach Muschamp and we called Coach Swinney and told them, and that’s it.”
Edwards enrolled early to get a head start on his true freshman season, then in his college debut caught eight passes for 101 yards against Vanderbilt. Teammates Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst had 36 yards and 17 yards, respectively. Edwards wouldn’t top 100 yards again that season, but he did catch four touchdowns, including this one against fourth-ranked Clemson, the team that wasn’t that interested in him as a receiver.
A connection that would work again two years later against third-ranked Georgia.
Edwards finished his freshman season catching 44 passes for 590 yards and four scores. He was an Athlon Freshman All-American second team and All-SEC Freshman first team. The only South Carolina freshman receiver with a better season: Alshon Jeffery. Among the six true freshman to start a season opener for the Gamecocks since 2009 are Edwards, Jadeveon Clowney, Stephon Gilmore, and Marcus Lattimore.
As a sophomore, Edwards caught 64 passes for 793 yards and five touchdowns. Hurst had 44 for 459 and two, Samuel had 15 for 250 and three in only three games. His quarterback was named Jake because every quarterback is named Jake. Edwards again faced a fourth-ranked Clemson team in the second-to-last game and he again scored, finishing with six catches for 70 yards on top of that.
In an Outback Bowl win over Michigan, Edwards caught five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown as South Carolina rallied back from a 19-3 deficit to win by seven points.
Edwards took another step forward as a junior, posting three 100-yard games, including a seven-catch, 111-yard, two-touchdown performance against third-ranked Georgia. (Aforementioned.) In a shootout against Clemson that season (with most of the shooting done by the Tigers), QB Jake threw for 510 yards and five touchdowns, but Samuel came down with 210 of those yards and three touchdowns. Edwards was quieter than usual, catching five for 41. At least one person at The Draft Network cites it as his worst game.
At this point Edwards could have entered the draft and potentially been drafted on day two, just as Samuel was by the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, he opted to return to school and attempt to showcase himself as a number one receiver (again) without Samuel.
I believe he did that.
Edwards was named the team’s offensive MVP for the second time in three years after catching 71 passes for 816 yards and six touchdowns over 10 games. He would be well on pace for over 1,000 yards if he had played in 12 or 13 games. Repeating the same act as high school, Edwards missed the end of his senior season because of a knee injury.
He chewed up some poor competition for 100-yard games, like against Charleston Southern and Vanderbilt, but he was also productive against Alabama (9 for 79), Georgia (6 for 78), and Florida (7 for 78).
And he had this catch against Tennessee:
All told, Edwards finished his career with 3,045 receiving yards, a program record and three more yards than Jeffery. His 22 touchdowns was only one less than program leaders Jeffery and Sidney Rice.
Unfortunately, Edwards missed the Senior Bowl (the site where Samuel did so much to boost his own stock a year earlier) because of the knee injury, then broke his foot while training for the combine. Any chance to improve — or harm — his stock via drills was out the window. It’s not as though Edwards was expected to run a 4.35 or even a 4.4, but swings in either direction are possible. It’s why they do the combine at all, right?
More importantly, Edwards missed opportunities in drills outside of the 40-yard dash and getting on the field and face-to-face with those scouts. With no pro day coming later, Edwards had to be evaluated the old school way: film. He had plenty of that.
Felix Devila of WithTheFirstPick called him “The sleeper receiver of the 2020 draft”
After watching several games of Edwards, his tape shows a competitive player on every down, willing to fight for extra yards and run block with aggression. He’s an active player all game, chasing plays downfield even when he’s not the ball carrier, and he isn’t afraid of linebackers or defensive linemen when it comes to blocking either.
His route running is superb, advanced by all considerations for most collegiate receivers. But most importantly, he understands angles and positioning into the blindspots of defensive backs to exploit open windows.
His hands are very strong and probably the strongest part of his game outside of his physicality. He plucks passes out of the air and prevents them from reaching inside his torso. He has crazy hand-eye coordination.
His strength and concentration are constantly on display in this regard, as he can snag a pass out of the air even with defenders draped all over him. And before that point, Edwards has loose hips that help emphasize his breaks, showing movement in his upper body that is independent of his lower body. This allows him to juke, cut, and break with ease and not lose speed, essentially making him a threat to all levels of the field.
While Edwards doesn’t possess Henry Ruggs III-like speed, his game speed is no doubt adequate for the NFL level. Defensive backs can get their hands inside his frame and slow his progression through routes, but Edwards adds to his route running with polished hand placement and strength to stall defenders off the line of scrimmage, and give him time to burst into space and separate.
More than anything, Edwards’ short-area quickness is top-notch, allowing him to be a threat to churn out chunk yardage from anywhere. His aggression and fight are evident from his willingness to take contact head-on, to keep his legs moving for extra yardage, and to outwork any defender on the field trying to take him down.
I usually hate to chunk out that much quote for a piece, but it’s a valuable assessment of Edwards’ strengths, even if that’s all it is and ignores what weaknesses he has. It was also fitting that Ruggs’ speed was mentioned, since their differences are expected to complemented each other as NFL teammates.
To wrap up the evaluation, it is mentioned that Edwards looks up to A.J. Green and that he’d like to be at that level. High hopes.
One area that Edwards has played in previously and could potentially excel at in the NFL is as a slot receiver. Though those players are often thought to be the smaller, slower, “scrappier” players, the position has evolved. Slots are utilized more than ever and are going up against bigger and more adequately trained nickel cornerbacks and linebackers. The slot receiver for the Las Vegas Raiders may twice a year go up against Tyrann Mathieu with the Kansas City Chiefs, a 5’9 tyrant.
Or Chris Harris of the Los Angeles Chargers, a potential Hall of Famer if the Hall only accepted slot cornerbacks and no other position.
From The Draft Network:
Summary - Bryan Edwards projects as a strong candidate to serve as a complimentary starter at the NFL level. Edwards may be best off as a “big slot” target, he frequently won his routes from the slot as a middle of the field receiver and struggled most with separation when trying to press and sell vertically on the boundary. Edwards shows some strong nuance to aid his route running ability and has physically dominant tendencies at the catch point. If he can sure up his hands, his ceiling grows.
From Benjamin Solak on that same Network:
Summary: Bryan Edwards is a late Day 2/early Day 3 candidate for teams looking for a complimentary receiver with the ability to create dynamic plays out of schemed touches. A bigger body with great explosiveness and good long speed, Edwards is surprisingly shifty as a runner, and has the requisite contact balance to break multiple tackles after generating troubling angles with his speed and quickness. Edwards lacks the ideal catch radius of a player his size, and often seems late or lazy when adjusting to the football, but he has flashes of elevation catches and downfield tracks that illustrate a high-ceiling player. Edwards is a candidate for a rotational WR3/4 role in Year 1, but has the ceiling of a WR2 if he shores up his releases against press coverage to create better instantaneous separation.
Those evaluations are obviously much more conservative than “AJ Green” but still paint a picture of a player who has the ceiling of being that type of “1,000-yard” receiver we often pine for — Especially for a Raiders franchise that hasn’t seen a wide receiver lead the team in receiving for more than two years in a row since Tim Brown in 2001.
But if you really want to dream big about Bryan Edwards, then you can read Cover 1’s evaluation of him:
t’s Edwards’ size and athleticism that flash on film and allowed the Gamecocks staff to use him in a multitude of ways. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior sports a thick build, which is the primary reason that he is able to break a lot of tackles after the catch. In 2019, per SportsInfo Solutions (SIS), Edwards gained 67%, 550 yards, of his total receiving yards after the catch and broke 15 tackles in the process (sixth-most among WRs). This upped his total to 56 broken tackles over the course of his career. Of his 111 targets in 2019, 29 receptions of 31 targets went for 237 yards and one touchdown in the screen game.
It’s often difficult to spot, but if you watch his footwork closely, you will see Edwards stab the outside short-arm of the Alabama defender on a one-step slant in the first clip. But then, just a few plays later, he makes it look similar, but this time he turns it into a three-step slant with some convincing footwork.
The nuance to his game can easily be overlooked because he doesn’t pop off the film like many SEC receivers do. Edwards likely runs the 40-yard dash in the 4.45-4.5 second range, which is average, so he must rely on other parts of his game to win. He has a knack for understanding a defender’s leverage within a given coverage and how to manipulate his route stem to maximize its effectiveness. On this play, Edwards is running a stop route, so you see him push vertically, and as he closes the cushion, he works into the blind spot of the corner. The corner is bailing deep with his eyes on the QB, which allows Edwards the ability to disappear behind the corner. Once in striking distance, he executes a subtle push-off with his inside hand. The push-off is subtle, but it creates massive separation for Edwards as if he just executed a “one-inch punch” on the defensive back. The move was sneaky, and I highly doubt any of the referees along the sideline could even see it.
Another example of leaning into the defensive back then taking his green. pic.twitter.com/0YAJrc3FsF— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) January 13, 2020
Everyone does seem to agree that there’s a notable ceiling for Edwards and that is most likely why the Raiders opted to double down on their commitment to finding the next Tim Brown 20 years later.
With the 12th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Las Vegas Raiders selected receiver Henry Ruggs III. With the 80th pick, they selected receiver (turned running back) Lynn Bowden Jr. And with the 81st pick they said, “To hell with people who don’t have original family names” and selected Bryan Edwards the first.
The Raiders have options now and they can keep Tyrell Williams and Nelson Agholor if Edwards seems to need more time to develop as many receivers do. We already know that they are going to hammer plenty of targets to Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow, Josh Jacobs, and Ruggs as is. I mean, I think Ruggs and Bowden will also be brought along slowly as rookies, but with all these options, they don’t need to make a hasty decision.
Edwards was able to contribute early at South Carolina and he was reliable up until his two recent injuries. That may have cost him a real chance to develop a part of his workout in the same way that he developed his game at South Carolina and who knows what may have happened to his stock. Perception is reality and if Edwards had made a little noise at the combine, he may not have even been available to Las Vegas at 81.
And that’s just from him being a receiver out of South Carolina. Imagine how much Mike Mayock would have loved the versatility of the two-time national championship safety out of Clemson.
In another life.