A few days ago, our own Jason Marcum posted a highlight video of the Bengals' new defensive end, Will Clarke. The video shows a lot of plays in one particular game against Kansas State, which ended up being one of Clarke's better statistical games of 2013.
Fair or not, Clarke will always be compared to former Bengals defensive end, Michael Johnson simply because the similarities are endless. Both were third round selections, both will be wearing the number 93 and have huge builds for the position (Clarke is 6'6" and 270 pounds, while Johnson was 6'7" and 260 pounds his final year in college). They also both had questions marks around them when entering the draft, as well as the team asking Clarke to help remedy the loss of Johnson in free agency this year.
The questions surrounding Johnson when he entered the NFL draft back in 2009 mostly surrounded his motor. The year prior, Johnson was considered to become a top-ten talent by some draft gurus with a solid showing because they had seen the potential as a junior. He still put up some solid stats with nine sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss, but consistency questions lingered, even after such a solid season.
Clarke, on the other hand, has other questions surrounding overall production as a college player and if he was a bit of a reach in the third round by the Bengals. With only 9.5 total sacks in three seasons (six as a senior last season), some wonder just how high Clarke's ceiling is, even with his impressive size. What he does have, in terms of impressive stats is overall tackles for loss, which he had 17 of last season.
I've embedded two videos of Clarke for your viewing pleasure. The first is the one from Marcum's post and the second is a team highlight against Maryland, where Clarke had his best statistical game of the 2013 season.
What you'll see here is a high-effort player who does not give up on plays easily. Clarke's motor is continuous and even if he is beaten by a blocker or faked out by the play call, he will run down the field and chase the ballcarrier. It's a valuable trait for someone who plays one of the most important positions on the field and is responsible for making the quarterback uneasy.
The other thing you'll note is poor technique on a number of plays. You'll see limbs flail around around and Clarke get taken out of plays almost immediately on some snaps. He doesn't necessarily have an explosive first step, though it's decent at times, which probably accounts for some of the lower sack totals in his collegiate career. It's also unclear whether Clarke is a true power defensive end, or a finesse guy. He seems to be a little bit of both.
Take a look at where Clarke lines up on the line in the videos. We see him play both end spots and even kick in as a pass-rushing defensive tackle at times. What do the Bengals love out of players? Say it with me know: versatility. Clarke provides that and it's undoubtedly the reason why the Bengals liked him.
Now, let's compare with a game highlight film of Johnson in one of his better college games. In this clip, you'll see a dominant performance from Johnson with a number of big plays. It might not be fair to Clarke, given that this film of Johnson is really only about his big plays, whereas the game film above is more of a snap-by-snap review. Keep that in mind, but I'm sure you will get the picture.
Check out the burst, acceleration and closing speed. Johnson doesn't show the power moves that Clarke employed at times, but his speed and length allowed him to get past blockers with relative ease. Johnson is a true defensive end that rarely kicked inside for the Bengals and stayed there for the most part, with the exception being in his second season where they unsuccessfully tried him at outside linebacker.
Johnson's incredible wingspan helped make him a good defensive end at both levels and he was rarely off of the field for the Bengals defense the past two seasons. Though most would agree that he has had a solid NFL career, the stigma of inconsistency has stuck with Johnson a bit as a pro. He had the stellar 11.5 sack season in 2012, but ranged anywhere from 2.5-6 sacks in the other four seasons in Cincinnati.
Drawing A Comparison:
Here is where the irony strikes. For all of the easy comparisons made between Clarke and Johnson, they don't appear to be very similar players. Johnson is a bit of his own animal because of his build and skill set, but I see a bit of a blend of Carlos Dunlap and Robert Geathers with Clarke, in terms of style of play.
He has the motor and versatility of Geathers, with the blend of moves that Dunlap employs. One can see Clarke's inner-Geathers in his pursuit during running and quarterback scramble plays, as well as the kicking in to tackle. Though the measurables seem to point to a direct similarity with Johnson, Clarke's build is more of a blend of the three Bengals defensive ends over the past couple of years.
Full disclosure, I don't think that Clarke will have as productive of a career as Dunlap or Johnson, mostly because the sheer athleticism is a tiny bit lower and the college production wasn't always there. Clarke will likely benefit from having other talented players on the line like Duntap, Geathers, Geno Atkins and Wallace Gilberry. If he can become a solid rotational guy, then the Bengals will have successfully continued the Mike Zimmer formula that he began setting in place back in 2008.
That may sound like a disappointment to Bengals fans, but here's the beauty of it: he wasn't necessarily picked to be the full-blown replacement for Johnson. In fact, last year's second round selection, Margus Hunt, should have that designation because of his build and style of play. Chances are that the combination of Hunt and Clarke could and should replicate Johnson's production that he took with him to Tampa Bay.