The summer before he entered his senior season at Rockdale County High School in 2010, Grady Jarrett and his mom, Elisha, drove from Conyers, Ga., up to Clemson, S.C., for Dabo Swinney's football camp. Those three days of nothing but football practice in the dog days of summer ended up being the most important days of Jarrett's life.
Jarrett was an undersized defensive lineman who hadn't received many scholarship offers at the time. But within minutes of stepping onto the grass at Swinney's camp, Clemson's head coach couldn't keep his eyes of Jarrett – a player he knew absolutely nothing about.
"He came into our camp and I couldn't stop watching him … he was unbelievable," Swinney said. "His motor, the look in his eye, his competitiveness. He was undersized and he beat everybody. It didn't matter who you put him against, it didn't matter if you put him at defensive tackle or defensive end, he won every matchup. What was amazing to me was he would go and get right back in line. He just kept going, I was so impressed with him."
It didn't take long for Swinney to make up his mind about Jarrett. In fact, he was so in awe of the 6-foot-1, 300-pound defensive tackle that he became the topic of Swinney's next staff meeting.
When Swinney met with the rest of the coaches on his staff, he had many "spirited" debates about Jarrett. Some of the coaches questioned his size. Some questioned his strength. But Swinney didn't care, Jarrett was worth betting on.
"I'm going to offer this guy [I told my staff]," Swinney said. "If he turns out to stink, I'll say, 'Hey, that's on me.' I'm putting my name on this guy. This guy is going to make our football team better."
And that's exactly what he went on to do.
Jarrett went from being a three-star recruit out of high school to the captain of the Tigers' football team in his senior season. Not only was Jarrett the best player on Clemson's defense in 2014, even more importantly, he helped build the culture at one of the most prolific college football programs in the country that will be in place for years to come.
"He was the best player on defense, no question," Swinney said. "We became the No. 1 defense in the nation in just about every category and that was a big deal. That doesn't happen if it wasn't for Grady Jarrett because he just demanded excellence from everyone around him."
In four seasons at Clemson, Jarrett recorded 80 tackles, 28.5 for a loss and 5.5 sacks. While his statistics didn't necessarily jump out on paper, the tape explained who Jarrett really was as a football player.
His size was the main question NFL scouts and general managers had when evaluating Jarrett and ultimately why he fell to the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
The Falcons drafted Jarrett's teammate, Vic Beasley Jr., with the No. 8 overall pick that year. Four rounds later, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn added another Clemson Tiger to their roster. Dimitroff traded two picks to the Minnesota Vikings to move up to get Jarrett with the 137th overall selection.
Swinney recalled a conversation he had with Quinn about Beasley and Jarrett ahead of the draft that clearly left an impression.
"I remember sitting in my office with Dan Quinn and said, 'Y'all are going to love Vic Beasley, he's going to make you better. But Grady Jarrett, he's going to change your franchise.'"
He was right.
After only starting two games in his rookie season, Jarrett's career took off after his performance in Super Bowl LI when he sacked Tom Brady three times. If the Falcons won that game, Jarrett would have probably been named the game's Most Valuable Player.
Jarrett has continued to improve each year he's been in the league. The Falcons rewarded him for his play following the 2018 season when the team signed him to a four-year deal worth a reported $68 million with $42.5 million of it guaranteed. Only two other interior defensive linemen, Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox, were paid higher than Jarrett at the time this contract was signed.
After signing his new deal, Jarrett vowed to be even better and that's exactly what he's done. Jarrett earned his first Pro Bowl nod and second-team AP All-Pro honors following the 2019 season. In the last two seasons, Jarrett has recorded 121 tackles, 20 for loss, 13.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. Not only has he improved as a player with each season, he's become one of the most important leaders in Atlanta's locker room and could go down as the best defensive tackle to ever put on a Falcons uniform.
"He is by far one of the hardest working teammates I've ever been around," said Matt Ryan. "He gets the absolute most out of his talent and his skillset. He's relentless. I look at him and I admire that as a teammate it certainly pushes me to try and find that kind of effort and that kind of intensity in myself."
Jarrett's internal motivation is what has allowed him to grow into the player and person he's become. His determination and confidence allow him to stay focused while giving his team the best version of himself.
And it wouldn't be wise to doubt he'll be anything less than that.
"I tell everybody to do me a favor and tell him that he can't do it," said Falcons defensive line coach Jess Simpson. "The first thing you ought to know about Grady Jarrett is every time he's told he can't do something, man, he's going to do it."
Defensive back Kendall Sheffield is known for working silently to perfect his craft, but his ability has been hard to ignore. Take a look at the best images from Day 18 of AT&T Atlanta Falcons Training Camp.