When the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, they had three bona-fide difference makers on defense: Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews and Nick Collins.
But a fourth player probably deserved to be on the list for the stretch run to that championship: B.J. Raji.
Raji was in his second NFL season in 2010, and in the last nine games (five regular season and four postseason) the defensive tackle had six sacks and an interception. He played the best football of his NFL career, and maybe most telling for how effective he was, even at 330-plus pounds he was a good enough pass rusher to stay on the field on passing downs.
The Packers saw in those two months what an interior pass rush can do for a defense. It wasn’t just the sacks; Raji also pushed the pocket and made it tougher for quarterbacks to step up to avoid other rushers.
So what does that have to do with the 2017 Packers? Well, with training camp getting going this week, one of the things to watch over the next month is whether general manager Ted Thompson’s first-round pick from last year, Kenny Clark, shows signs of becoming the kind of player Raji was in ’10 and adding an inside pass rush complement to the Packers' best defensive player, Mike Daniels.
The Packers certainly need it to improve an embattled defense that ranked No. 31 in passing yards allowed last season. Yes, their coverage was in shambles in 2016 because of injuries and unexpectedly poor play. But don’t let their sacks ranking (tied for No. 6 in the NFL) fool you. Their rush bore plenty of the responsibility as well. As important as coverage is, a good pass rush always will be the best way to defend the pass, and the Packers’ No. 31-ranked pass defense says what you need to know there.
Thompson didn’t make any major moves this offseason to augment his rush – he didn’t draft a rusher until outside linebacker Vince Biegel in the fourth round, and Biegel’s offseason foot surgery leaves in doubt how much he'll help the team this season. That means Thompson needs improvement from within to get more heat on quarterbacks.
And his decision to draft Clark at No. 27 overall in last year’s draft will go a long way toward determining whether that happens. Thompson already has missed once on a recent first-round pick at inside rusher, Datone Jones in 2013. The GM needs to hit on this one.
You don’t draft a defensive lineman in the first round unless he’s either a giant or a potential rusher. Clark wasn’t the former – he’s big (314 pounds) but not huge by NFL standards. But Thompson projected Clark as a potential pass rusher in the NFL for two reasons: uncommon youth and a six-sack season in his final year at UCLA.
As for the youth, last season as a 20-year old Clark was the youngest player on the Packers’ opening-day roster since 1930. Now 21, he’s more than a full year younger than his next-youngest teammate from last year’s draft class. Most players his age are entering their junior or senior season in college.
And six sacks, while not eye popping, rates as a pretty good season for an inside rusher in major college football. Combined with Clark's youth, Thompson saw a player with a chance to sack and pressure the quarterback as he grew in the NFL.
Clark had a quiet rookie season (no sacks) in 2016 while playing only 32.5 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. He will have to play a much bigger role this season, and you can see that early in training camp with the regular snaps he’s been getting in the defensive line rotation, including often working with the No. 1 defense. But the biggest indicator of his pass-rush skills will be whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers has Clark on the field on passing downs.
When the Packers ran their first two-minute drill of camp Friday, Clark wasn’t. Dean Lowry, another second-year pro, was the defensive tackle alongside Daniels. That’s something to watch as we get closer to September. If Clark doesn’t win the job, it will have to count as a disappointment.
In the first practice in pads Saturday, I can’t say Clark jumped out, at least in the most obvious setting, one-on-one pass rushing. He took four reps, and the way I saw it went 2-2. Starting center Corey Linsley beat him twice; Clark beat undrafted rookie Thomas Evans on one snap, and sixth-round rookie Kofi Amichia with an inside move on another.
You don’t want to read too much into one day’s performance. I remember Raji dominating that drill early in camp in his third and fourth seasons but not sustaining it into September. Same for Jones as a rookie. So early impressions can deceive.
Regardless, Thompson needs his defensive-heavy drafts from the past few years to start paying off. In 2015, three of the GM’s top four picks (Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Jake Ryan) were defense; last year, four of his top five (Clark, Kyler Fackrell, Blake Martinez and Lowry); and this year his first four (Kevin King, Josh Jones, Montravius Adams and Biegel).
Clark is among the most obvious places to start looking for payoff. The recent example for him is Raji, who in his second season became a crucial player after a similarly quiet rookie year. Clark doesn’t quite have Raji’s size or abilities as a pure penetrator, but the Packers seem to think he can become the better, more consistent player because of his motor and untapped pass-rush moves.
Thompson’s draft acumen is on the line.