Kenny Clark an emerging force on Packers' defense
Fifth in a nine-part Packers position-analysis series.
There are many harsh realities in the National Football League that extend beyond the players on a 53-man roster. The business aspect of football affects everyone from the general manager, as employees of the Green Bay Packers saw earlier this year, to members of the coaching staff, many of whom were axed by Mike McCarthy within days after a dismal season finale.
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac found himself among the debris after nine seasons with the Packers, all of which came under former defensive coordinator Dom Capers. In some ways, his reality felt particularly harsh when viewed through last season’s lens. There were issues all over the Packers’ defense in 2017, but the front line was far from the greatest concern.
In fact, defensive end Mike Daniels and nose tackle Kenny Clark were arguably the best and most consistent players on their side of the ball, with the former solidifying his claim as one of the top interior linemen in the league and the latter catapulting his development from Year 1 to Year 2. Given how much sub defense the Packers play — meaning formations with only two down linemen on the field — there were few teams in the league who could match the aforementioned tandem.
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The depth along the line was steady as well, something that cannot be said for the cornerback, safety and inside linebacker groups. Rotating behind Clark and Daniels were 5-technique Dean Lowry and street free agent Quinton Dial, a pair of capable if unspectacular backups. The only disappointment was rookie third-round pick Montravius Adams.
All told, the defensive line accounted for 31 percent of the team’s sacks and 30 percent of its quarterback hits.
A cornerstone of the Packers’ draft-and-develop philosophy is steady growth between a player’s first and second seasons, and nobody personified the second-year jump like Clark. A first-round pick in ’16 — at which point he entered the league at 20 years old — Clark matured into a violent, disruptive force along the line of scrimmage, a player whose skill set was unmatched by anyone else on the roster. Together with Lowry, a fourth-round pick in ’16 who made noticeable strides of his own, the Packers have two budding linemen with the intelligence and drive to be key contributors for years.
In an effort to bolster their interior pass rush, the Packers spent a third-round pick on Adams last spring. Early on, Adams drew rave reviews from some of his veteran teammates for the type of quick-twitch ability that would have aided a mostly brute-force group. But a foot injury sidelined Adams for nearly all of training camp and, once healed, his contributions were nonexistent during the regular season. Exactly how his skill set will translate to the NFL level is unclear, and those types of uncertainties can gnaw at a personnel department for an entire offseason, especially as decisions about draft picks and free agents loom.
When the New England Patriots took the field in Super Bowl LII last weekend, among their ranks was a player released by the Packers partway through the year. Defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois played 15 snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles as proof positive that dipping into the veteran free-agent market is not always a disaster — despite what happened with tight end Martellus Bennett. Dial, the other veteran pickup by former general manager Ted Thompson, was an important rotation player for the Packers this season. Dial will be an unrestricted free agent in March and, after a solid year, deserves another chance in 2018. The Packers should keep their eyes peeled for more players like him, too.
Montravius Adams: His rookie season began inauspiciously when Adams fractured the fifth metatarsal in his left foot during his very first training camp practice. He underwent surgery to insert a screw that stabilized the fracture and missed all four exhibition games, stunting his growth from the outset. Behind on the learning curve, Adams was a non-factor all year, even after he recovered. He was inactive for 10 of 16 games and played more than 10 snaps only twice, with 18 against the Detroit Lions at home and 15 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He finished with 2 tackles, one quarterback hit and a long way to go before next season. The game appeared much too fast for him in 2017. Grade: D-
Kenny Clark: Played more snaps than any defensive lineman (688) in what can only be described as a stellar season. His lateral quickness and willingness to pursue caused problems for opponents week in and week out, regardless of how many double teams he drew. Disengaged quickly and violently to make plays at the line of scrimmage, and the significant strides Clark made as a pass rusher were a welcome addition to everything Daniels already provides. Clark finished sixth on the team in tackles (55) and tied for fourth in tackles for loss (6). He came on strong as a rusher with all 4½ of his sacks in the final five weeks. Earned respect from his teammates for missing only one game after a nasty ankle injury against the Baltimore Ravens. Finished as one of the best players on the team, not just the defense. Grade: B+
Mike Daniels: If you swept the Packers’ locker room for football purists, the search would stop with Daniels. He adores the physical side of the game and challenges opposing linemen to outwork him on a weekly basis. Gives tremendous effort on every play and takes it personally when the defensive line performs poorly. Has taken strides as a leader in the locker room. Finished third on the team in sacks (5) tackles for loss (8) and quarterback hits (12). Pass rush was fleeting at times, evidenced by four-game stretch without a sack from Week 5 through Week 9. Missed two games with injury and played 59.9 percent of snaps. Grade: B
Quinton Dial: Cut by the San Francisco 49ers on Sept. 2, Dial spent three days on the street before signing with the Packers. Former fifth-round pick is a mountain of a man at 6-5½ and 318 pounds, making his presence felt in the locker room and at the line of scrimmage. Proved to be a reliable contributor playing anywhere from 18 to 34 snaps per game. Lacks the explosiveness of Clark or Daniels, but Dial is difficult to move at the point and holds double teams well. Offered virtually nothing as a pass rusher but was fairly stout against the run. Made 19 tackles in 29.4 percent playing time. The 27-year-old will be a free agent in March. Grade: C
Dean Lowry: Intelligent player who works hard on his craft. Entrenched himself as the starting 5-technique in the base defense and rotated behind Daniels and Clark in the sub packages. Flashed awareness and made good use of his height to become the only lineman with multiple pass deflections. Finished with 32 tackles, including 2 sacks, in 47.1 percent playing time. Provided one of the highlights of the year by returning a fumble 62 yards for a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Developing well after two seasons. Grade: C+