All the talk about free agency and counting draft picks ignores a major point: players develop. This is where most of Green Bay’s year over year improvement comes from and this year Kenny Clark is a player to watch.
I didn’t know what to think when the Packers selected Kenny Clark last year. I was hoping for A’Shawn Robinson, but was glad to see we went D-line.
A young kid with room to grow (both physically – he looked leaner than Lacy in his first training camp, check it out – and technique-wise), I didn’t see much when I watched him in the preseason. In the regular season, he only had 9 snaps in week 1. Ok, I figured, ease the rookie in, it’s hot in Jacksonville and he’s gigantic. Then, in weeks 2 and 3, he played 80 snaps combined, over 60% each game, but that was when Guion was out. For the rest of the year, he never played even 40% of the defensive snaps in a game. In the last three regular season games, he only played 22% of the total defensive snaps.
Not the type of growth you would want to see out of a young player during their rookie campaign.
On the year, he only played 32% of the total defensive snaps, despite not really getting hurt.
In the playoffs, he went from 34% of the snaps against the Giants, to 38% against the Cowboys, to 42% against the Falcons. It was promising to see that ramp up during the run, but still not a huge impact first-rounder as a rookie.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story, though – there’s other factors involved.
For one, Clark came out as a nose tackle. Letroy Guion starts at nose tackle (because he did so well in Raji’s absence in 2014) and is far less effective as a defensive end (as evidenced by his production when Raji returned to play nose tackle in 2015, moving Guion back to end). It’s possible that Clark is a similar player, better at holding the point in the middle then playing end.
But when Raji played the point (and Guion to a degree), I saw the push up the middle. Not a Mike Daniels backfield-wrecking explosion, but a middle push that bubbles the line backwards.
I didn’t see that much out of Clark. Now, I admit to train-wreck-staring at the dumpster fire secondary most of the year when the Packers were on defense, but still, if a D-lineman is doing his job (like Mike Daniels), you notice anyway.
Towards the end of the year, I did see some flashes, like when he sniffed out a screen, sorted through a three man escort, burst in pursuit, and wrangled up NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliot for a loss (my favorite part is the look on Zeke’s face when he realizes that he’s going to get rolled by a 320-pounder). That was impressive. That was what you want out of a first round pick.
But there weren’t as many of those plays as I would have liked to see. Heck, he didn’t even play as many snaps as I would have liked to see.
Julius Peppers is a 100 years old and he played 250 more snaps than Clark, many of them from a defensive line position. It will be interesting to see how personnel shakes out next year, given that they probably won’t take a defensive lineman in the first round. Will he play more nose as Guion turns 30? Where will newly-signed RJF get snaps? Will Clark mix in at end with another training camp to learn more positions.
Historically, the Packers ease their rookies in to the pro game (for example, Jordy Nelson had six starts and six touchdowns in his first three years combined), so there is hope.
Right now, all it is is hope. Still, this is a kid who played in the NFL at age 20 last year. He’s a guy I’m banking on to bring internal improvement.