GREEN BAY - Looking back, there is a touch of simplicity in the idea that former first-round pick Kenny Clark was drafted as a like-for-like replacement for veteran nose tackle B.J. Raji.
Clark, who left school after his junior season and before his 21st birthday, joined the Green Bay Packers following the surprise retirement of Raji, whose decision to walk away altered the organization’s offseason priorities. Though young, Clark was viewed as the budding heir to the middle of the Packers’ 3-4 scheme.
But in today’s National Football League, where quarterbacks throw 40 to 50 times per game and receivers litter the field, the Packers’ reliance on a true nose tackle keeps decreasing, and Raji’s role had changed as his career progressed. Yes, the Packers will continue to be known as a 3-4 defense for as long as coordinator Dom Capers remains employed, but their true base formation in terms of snaps played is the nickel alignment: two defensive linemen, two outside linebackers, two inside linebackers.
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And it’s in this role as something of a defensive tackle-nose tackle hybrid — one with run-stopping and pass-rushing responsibilities — that Clark will be counted on to excel in his second season, just like Raji did early in his career.
“If you just watch the progression of the season,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, “his arrow was straight up.”
Predictably, Clark began the season behind veteran Letroy Guion, who along with defensive end Mike Daniels dominated the majority of snaps at the two defensive line positions in nickel and dime. Guion, 29, proved immovable at times against the run but contributed almost nothing in pass-rushing situations. He regressed from 16 pressures in 2014, his first year with the Packers, to just one in 2016.
In other words, playing time was there for the taking if and when Clark acclimated himself to both the defense and the level of competition.
“I thought he played extremely well the last six weeks,” McCarthy said. “That’s something we need to build off.”
This coincided with an obvious spike in playing time during the playoffs. Clark, who played approximately 32 percent of snaps overall, jumped to 38 percent against the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. He peaked at 42 percent in the NFC championship game.
But his finest performance of the season came against Dallas, when Clark chased down rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott on a screen pass and imposed himself on the best offensive line in the league. Clark played just one fewer snap than Guion that afternoon (27 to 26). It was the closest they had come to equal playing time since each player saw 22 snaps in the blowout loss to the Tennessee Titans in Week 10.
“Kenny Clark played well,” McCarthy said three days after beating the Cowboys. “He's doing very well. You can see his snaps have gone up. I think he clearly in the last six weeks has taken a big jump. I'm very happy with the progress Kenny's making.”
A staple of general manager Ted Thompson’s draft-and-develop system — in which young players are counted on to produce earlier than they would with many other franchises — is the concept of significant improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, similar to freshmen and sophomores in college.
Clark’s growth between now and September takes on greater importance after the announcement of a four-game suspension for Guion, who was flagged for violating league policy on performance-enhancing substances. A four-game suspension is triggered by a positive test for an anabolic agent or stimulant, according to the policy.
The league has a separate substance-abuse policy that monitors improper use of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and alcohol.
Even without the suspension, Clark was in position to challenge Guion for a starting spot next season, and there's a chance the coaches already may have viewed him as the front runner. Now, Clark is virtually assured of beginning the season alongside Daniels in whatever formation the Packers use.
He's not just a nose tackle anymore.
Said McCarthy: “I think he’ll take that big jump as a second-year player.”