Packers veteran Kenny Clark highlights leadership, rushing defense as areas of focus this offseason
GREEN BAY − It’s a season of change for the Green Bay Packers, as quarterback changes usher in new faces of leadership, locker room dynamics and heightened expectations, at least on one side of the ball.
While quarterback Jordan Love is taking the reins on offense, the defense will look much the same: fast, athletic and full of first-round draft picks. But will it be enough to finally reach the potential they themselves know has been just out of reach in recent years?
Defensive lineman Kenny Clark met with the media Wednesday and highlighted four important areas both he and the Packers defense can focus on this season.
Youth movement will extend to defense
While the majority of faces on defense have been around for a few years now, many of the front seven still are relatively young and taking their first big swing at a starting role. With the departures of Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed, guys like T.J. Slaton (third year) and Devonte Wyatt (second year) are in the best position to become interior starters.
Clark, who spent a large portion of his career inside, is prepared to mentor the young duo, primarily by pushing them to be all the Packers need.
“They gotta take huge steps,” Clark said. “T.J., love how he came in. Even with D-Wyatt, just love how they came in. And they've been doing, they've been doing a great job, they've been getting better every day.
“We are expecting, TJ and and D-Wyatt to have big steps coming this year. You know, I'm gonna be there everyday pushing them. I know the coaches is gonna push them so we got to make sure they're right by Week one.”
It’s not just Slaton and Wyatt that will be asked to step up, though. The Packers took edge rusher Lukas Van Ness at No. 13 overall in this year's draft, likely planning to move their versatile rookie around on the edge along with Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, inside when needed and even dropped back at times.
“He's gonna be great for us, I think he's gonna be versatile, be able to play a lot of different spots,” Clark said of Van Ness. “He's big and strong, so I think he can play inside and play the five, play the three inside and pass rush, and all that kind of stuff. And then he's still agile enough to go out and play the end. So, we've got a versatile guy, big and strong. He fast off the ball. And he's got a good long arm from what I've seen training with him.”
First-round draft talent heightens expectations
With the addition of Van Ness, the Packers' defense now boasts eight first-rounders. As the defense has experienced ups and downs in recent years, often starting slow before finding a groove late in the season, it has left expectations unmet. That can’t continue to be the case, Clark said.
“That's what comes with it, you know, being a first-rounder and all that kind of stuff,” said Clark, a first-rounder himself in 2016 (No. 27 overall). “I mean, you got that much talent on the ball, it's expected that you got to ball out.
“We hold each other to that standard. And that's the case this year. We got a lot of talent on that side of the ball and we got to do our part.”
Every facet can be improved
Meeting those expectations is always easier said than done. So where does this group work the most this offseason? They finished the 2022 regular season in the middle of the pack, allowing an average of 336.5 yards per game and 21.8 points per game, both 17th in the league.
Rushing defense dragged down the overall ranking as the Packers gave up an average of 139.5 yards per game (26th in the league). Therein lies the crux of the issue, Clark said, and where their focus should go first.
“We definitely got to start faster. But again, I think it starts with just tackling and stopping the run,” Clark said.
“Stop guys on first and second down, get them in third-and-long situations. And you know, whenever they throw the ball short, be able to tackle, just tackle the ball carrier and get after the passer.”
The Packers defense did get off the field more often than not on third down, allowing opponents a 37.6% conversion rate, eighth in the league.
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Clark can lead defense ... and entire team
With Aaron Rodgers in his New York era, there is the potential for a leadership vacuum in Green Bay. Quarterback Jordan Love insists he can fill it, but growing pains are to be expected there for the first-time starter. Clark, who has been named captain by his teammates twice during his time in Green Bay, knows he’ll have to pick up the mantel.
“I feel like, start of the year, I've been more vocal, definitely to start the year,” Clark said. “Just looking inward at myself, I do definitely got to be more vocal. Guys want to hear me, hear me talk and they respect what I say.
"So I definitely gotta be more of a vocal leader for the team. But as far as just my approach, I'm coming in every day and working being the same guy every day. And yeah, so I definitely got to step up that part of my game, as far as being vocal.”