Note: This is the sixth in a series of positional stories focused on the big story lines entering Week 1 of the NFL season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Before heading to practice during training camp last summer, Kenny Clark signed a four-year contract extension worth $70 million. It was an acknowledgement that Clark – just 24 at the time – was both a premier player and an ascending player.
However, rather than recording a bunch of tackles for losses, his climb to elite defender was thrown for a loss. Clark suffered a groin injury in the opening game at Minnesota. He missed the next three games and really didn’t find his stride until late in the season. He went from 89 tackles to 42, from six sacks to two, from 62 quarterback pressures to 28, from six tackles for losses on running plays to one. His average tackle went from 1.9 yards downfield to a career-worst 2.6. His tackle rate slipped from one every 9.8 snaps to one every 14.5 snaps.
“Every time I’m healthy, my play and my season speaks for itself,” Clark said early in training camp. “When I’m healthy, I’m doing great. But with my groin, it was like a fluky situation. From that point on, I was just trying to figure things out.”
There are a number of keys to Green Bay’s defense reaching a championship level this season, ranging from new defensive coordinator Joe Barry to the additions of first-round cornerback Eric Stokes and veteran linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. However, the biggest development would be a bounce-back season from Clark.
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Tight end Josiah Deguara was back after missing last week with a concussion.
Simply put, there’s nobody else capable of making a consistent difference up front. The playoffs were perhaps a good indicator with 2.5 sacks. He was a stud in the NFC Championship loss to Tampa Bay with eight tackles, all of which came within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.
“Toward the end of the season, kind of got my legs up under me, started playing how I usually play and happy how I finished off the season,” Clark said. “I feel like as long as I’m healthy, whoever is across from me is going to get my best every play. My main focus is just getting better, getting better, working on all the stuff I need to work on, stay sharp in my techniques and play with that aggressive mindset, play with that fire and just staying healthy. Because when I’m healthy my play, my seasons, all that speaks for itself.”
Of course, it would help if Clark got some help from his friends. On that front, things are looking up. After going from zero sacks and one pressure as a rookie in 2019 to four sacks and 22 pressures in 2020, Kingsley Keke had a superb training camp. His burst off the ball, athleticism and improved technique are going to be hard to handle. Dean Lowry, who matched his career high with three sacks but also matched his career low with one tackle for loss vs. the run, had a good camp, as well. And fifth-round rookie TJ Slaton had a promising camp and preseason. He should be able to help the team’s beleaguered run defense.
If Clark, Lowry and Slaton can improve the run defense, then Clark and Keke can join outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary in providing a formidable pass rush. Offenses can’t double-team all of Green Bay’s potential playmakers.
“Anytime I’m one-on-one, I’m expected to win,” Clark said. “I expect that out of myself, my coaches expect it out of me. Just me at the point of attack, just my power, when I do switch it up and do more finesse stuff, it’s hard to block on me one-on-one, I feel like, in the run game, pass game, whatever. Anytime you can get me one-on-one or the offenses to leave me one-on-one with somebody, it’s a win for us.”