Offensive players get all the attention in the news. However, it’s the defensive side of the ball that will be the most important variable for the Green Bay Packers in 2021.
After jettisoning defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in the wake of two consecutive disappointing playoff exits, the onus is now on Joe Barry to elevate the play of this highly talented roster. No question, stars Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith will continue to be anchors for the 13th-ranked scoring defense next year. That ranking will have to improve if the Packers want to get past the NFC Championship Game this year.
Much has been made about the draft additions of rookies Eric Stokes and Tedarrell Slaton to fill out the defensive personnel. Many of the moves that general manager Brian Gutekunst has made have done wonders for the depth of the overall roster while keeping prolific starters on board with team-friendly contracts. This has allowed the Packers to play at a consistently high level regardless of injuries or fatigue substitutions.
However, there is one position on the defense which would appear to be set on relying on the prowess of a long-term starter. The performance of Kenny Clark at the heart of the defensive line will be important to monitor this upcoming season. His role at nose tackle in Barry’s presumptive 3-4 defense will have a ripple effect on the pass rush, overall run defense, and the effectiveness of a young ILB core.
Recapturing his Form
It is no question that, when healthy, Clark can be one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles.
Since being drafted in 2016, Clark has compiled 235 combined tackles and 18.5 sacks alongside 59 career starts. When healthy and playing at his best, Clark justifies his first-round selection. The above clip from the NFC Championship shows just how effective and disruptive he can be. There are shades of B.J. Raji, which should hearten the Packers faithful.
However, injuries have been a bit of a concern for Clark in recent years. There was a high-ankle sprain in 2017, and in 2018 he sprained his elbow and missed the final three games of the season. Clark would eventually return to have a Pro-Bowl season in 2019, only to see his last year marred by a Week 1 groin injury. Clark missed three games last year and never truly recaptured his Pro-Bowl form.
Looking back at where many media outlets had Clark ranked ahead of last season, it is easy to get excited about his potential. In addition to his massive talent, Clark will now also be working with someone who has had extensive experience with the NFL’s best defensive lineman, Aaron Donald. Joe Barry has spent the last three seasons in Los Angeles with Donald, and he will look to mold Clark into the archetype of the best defensive player in the NFL.
Stopping the Run
While Clark makes highlights and headlines for his pass rush, his presence as a big body in the middle of the line will be integral to the team’s rushing defense next year.
The Packers’ run defense was 21st in the league in yards per carry, surrendering 4.5 yards per tote. Clark’s job this year will be simple and twofold: stay on the field and clog up the middle of the line. This will be even more important considering the two inside linebackers who will be working behind Clark.
While Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin have shown plenty of upside, the reality is that the two starting inside linebackers for Green Bay this upcoming season will be second-year players. Development from those two is to be expected, but Clark will have to step up in order to take some pressure off the young duo.
The performance of that ILB core will also be integral to the team’s success next year. There is plenty of blue-chip star power surrounding them nearly everywhere else on the defense, so Barnes and Martin will have to prove they are up to the task of playing championship-caliber football. Clark will have to be the best player he can be for Barnes and Martin to get settled into their roles.
Many are predicting that, if healthy, Clark can have a 10-sack season next year. This is an achievable goal for him given his talent level, though even eight sacks would be a career-high and seems to be a more realistic expectation. After an injury-plagued 2020 season that never quite got going, it would be wise for fans to temper expectations for Clark.
At the end of the day, his effectiveness next year will primarily be measured by his ability to make it through the season without picking up another injury. If he can stay on the field, that alone will be a boon for a team that sorely needs the best version of Clark. Look for him to have a significant impact on Green Bay’s success in 2021.