Ranking the Packers (No. 5): Kenny Clark
GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a tradition that stretches more than a decade, here is our annual ranking of the 90 players on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. This isn’t merely a look at the best players. Rather, it’s a formula that combines talent, salary, importance of the position, depth at the position and, for young players, draft positioning. More than the ranking, we hope you learn a little something about every player on the roster.
No. 5: DT Kenny Clark (6-3, 314, fifth season, UCLA)
While the case for a contract extension for star running back Aaron Jones stands on some shaky ground, there are no such concerns for Clark. He is a young, elite player at a premium position.
Clark, who won’t even turn 25 until October, is coming off his first Pro Bowl season. He has emerged as a three-down defender, a rare thing for a 300-pounder.
Clark finished second on the team with 89 tackles, according to the coaches’ count. Those tackles limited the average gain to 1.8 yards, according to Sports Info Solutions. He had a team-high 11 stuffs, defined as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run. Among the 63 interior defensive linemen who played at least 200 snaps of run defense, Clark finished seventh in PFF’s run-stop percentage. That metric measures impact tackles. For instance, a first-and-10 tackle that holds the play to 3 yards would be a run stop; a 4-yard gain would not be a run stop.
Clark is more than just a top run-stopper, though. He matched his career high with six sacks last season. Among the 82 defensive linemen who rushed the passer at least 200 times, Clark finished sixth in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hit and hurries per pass-rushing snap. Among interior defenders, his 62 total pressures trailed only Aaron Donald’s 80.
Looking at both of PFF’s metrics, Clark was the only interior defender to finish in the top 16 in each. Clark, of course, was much better than merely the top 16. And yet, Clark is so underrated that it wasn’t even considered a snub (other than by astute Packers fans) that he wasn’t included on NFL Network’s player-voted list of the top 100 players in the league. One scout, in a text conversation about the 100-player list, called Clark’s absence “a joke.”
“He’s a dominant player,” coach Matt LaFleur said before the NFC Championship Game. “He comes to work every day, he’s a pro and he works hard. Kenny’s been consistent all year long and I think he’s probably a little underrated, in my opinion, but we’re certainly fortunate to have a player of that caliber on our football team.”
Clark is scheduled to play this season under the fifth-year team option of $7.69 million. Both sides would like to strike a long-term deal but the COVID-19 pandemic means that isn’t the slam dunk it seemed a few months ago. With NFL revenue plunging and teams borrowing against the next four salary caps to make the economics work out, there might not be the money to make a deal happen given Green Bay’s incredibly top-heavy roster.
“Kenny is a big part of what we do, very important to our defense,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said at the end of the season. “I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to come to some agreement at some point. These things don’t happen quickly, usually. But I think the idea was always sometime this offseason we would start to approach that, and we will.”
Why he’s so important: Other than quarterback, there might not be a bigger gap on the roster between the best player of a position group and the second-best player than there is with Clark and the rest of the defensive line. Clark is dominant, young and a leader. Really, he’s the total package. It’s no exaggeration to suggest the defense might be lost without him. While the edge defenders are the ones who tend to pile up the sacks, a great pass rush truly needs the men in the middle to, at least, collapse the pocket. Amazingly, of Clark’s 16.5 career sacks, nine have come in December – and that’s with him missing the final three games of the 2018 season due to injury. Last season’s massive snap count (54.3 per game) hardly mattered.
“When you have edge rushers that can rush the quarterback, you can put four or five little guys out there if you want, but are you going to get the push up the middle to push the pocket?” defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery said last season. “You go back to look at some of the sacks, the center and guards are sitting in the lap of the quarterback. The only place for him to go is out and around because we had everybody collapsing the pocket. It’s nice to have bigs in there that can push the pocket, so when you have edge rushers that can get there, there’s nowhere to escape.”