Over the last decade, few college programs have had more success than Clemson football. Dabo Swinney has turned the Tigers into a consistent contender in recent years, winning two national championships and making six College Football Playoff appearances. The Tigers have some solid history, but this is clearly the program’s golden age.
That said, Clemson has been sending talented players to the NFL for a long time now. While only one former Tiger is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, many others have forged excellent careers all the same. With young stars like Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, and A.J. Terrell excelling early on in their careers, the history of former Clemson players thriving in the NFL is still going strong.
The 2023 NFL Draft is just around the corner, and a new generation of Tigers is about to begin their NFL journeys. With that in mind, now seems like a great time to look back on some of the best former Clemson players in NFL history.
Without further ado, let’s go over the five Tigers who enjoyed the best NFL careers.
5. Dwight Clark, WR, 1979-87
While Dwight Clark enjoyed a great NFL career, he wasn’t quite as prolific with Clemson football. In three seasons with the Tigers, Clark had just 33 receptions for 571 yards and three touchdowns. However, he still made it to the NFL, being a 10th-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1979 NFL Draft.
After a quiet rookie season, Clark helped the 49ers emerge as a dynasty throughout the 1980s. In his nine-year career with San Francisco, Clark hauled in 506 passes for 6,750 yards and 48 touchdowns, earning two Pro-Bowl selections. Of course, most know Clark due to “The Catch,” one of the most famous plays in NFL history. With the 49ers trailing the Dallas Cowboys in the final minute of the 1982 NFC Championship Game, Clark leaped to catch Joe Montana’s pass in the back of the end zone and score the go-ahead touchdown. The 49ers would then go on to win Super Bowl XVI, their first of two in Clark’s career.
While not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Clark is still in the 49ers Hall of Fame and the team retired his No. 87 jersey. He also earned a spot in the Clemson Sports Hall of Fame following his retirement in 1988.
4. Michael Dean Perry, DL, 1988-97
Many know of former Clemson superstar William “The Fridge” Perry due to his role with the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears. However, his younger brother Michael Dean Perry was actually more successful individually. Perry was a monster at Clemson with 61 tackles for loss and 28 sacks, ranking first and second in school history, respectively. After his stellar college career, the Cleveland Browns selected Perry in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft.
Perry was mostly a rotational player as a rookie, but broke out as a star soon after. Throughout his decade-long career, Perry racked up 565 tackles, 61 sacks, and 13 forced fumbles. He was a first-team All-Pro twice and a Pro Bowl player six times.
Although Perry also played with the Denver Broncos and very briefly with the Kansas City Chiefs, he is most famous for his seven years in Cleveland. He earned a spot in the Cleveland Browns legends program in 2001, shortly after the team returned to the league.
3. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, 2013-Present
It’s very rare for a current player to make their way onto a list like this. However, Hopkins is more than worthy of being here with what he has accomplished so far. With Clemson football, Hopkins formed one of the best-receiving duos in the country together with Sammy Watkins. He racked up 3,020 yards and 27 touchdowns in three seasons, ranking second and first in school history, respectively. He was a highly-touted prospect out of college, and the Houston Texans selected him at 27th overall in 2013.
From the moment he took the field, Hopkins was a special NFL player. Through his first decade in the league, he has 853 receptions for 11,298 yards and 71 touchdowns despite not having great quarterback play for much of his career. He has been a Pro-Bowler five times and a first-team All-Pro twice.
Hopkins played his first seven seasons with the Texans and his last three with the Arizona Cardinals. He may be on the move again soon, and he will surely continue adding to his legacy.
2. Trevor Pryce, DL, 1997-2010
Trevor Pryce has by far the biggest contrast between his college and professional careers of anyone on this list. After transferring from Michigan, Pryce only played one season for Clemson football, which ended that season at a disappointing 7-5. Still, he did enough for the Broncos to select him 28th overall in the 1997 draft.
Pryce played sparingly as a rookie, but still contributed to Denver winning its first Super Bowl. After helping the Broncos go back-to-back in 1998, Pryce was a Pro-Bowler each season between 1999 and 2002, earning a first-team All-Pro nod in the former year. He also finished top five in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2003 and 2006. Throughout his 14-year career, Pryce racked up 448 tackles, 99 tackles for loss and 91 sacks.
Pryce played with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets, but his nine-year run in Denver was easily his best. He even earned a spot on the Broncos’ 50th-anniversary team in 2009.
1. Brian Dawkins, S, 1996-2011
There was never any doubt that Dawkins, the only Tiger currently in the Hall of Fame, would top this list. In three seasons at Clemson, Dawkins racked up 247 tackles and 11 interceptions, earning All-ACC honors as a senior. The Philadelphia Eagles then selected him in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft, one of their best draft decisions ever.
Dawkins emerged as the leader of the Eagles’ defense for 13 years. In that time, he was a seven-time Pro-Bowler, a four-time first-team All-Pro and led the Eagles to the playoffs eight times, including a Super Bowl XXXIX appearance. He then finished his career with three seasons in Denver, earning two more Pro-Bowl appearances. In his 16-year career, Dawkins racked up 1,147 tackles, 153 passes defended, 37 interceptions and 36 forced fumbles.
Upon his induction in 2018, Dawkins became Clemson’s first ever Hall-of-Famer. There have been many great former Tigers in the NFL, and many more will follow, but Dawkins is unquestionably the greatest of them all.
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