Last year, we began a feature that counted down an arbitrary pre-Training Camp list for Cincinnati Bengals players. In it, we listed 10 players we felt were ready to breakout that year. While a few were hits, others were misses because of a variety of factors ranging from injury, ineffectiveness and/or inability to climb up the depth chart. Hey, nobody said we were psychics, right?
Now that we've seen a few glimpses of the team and its somewhat-new-look roster via OTAs, we've decided to kick off the list again to see if we have a higher batting average this time around. There isn't much in terms of criteria, other than past game film, OTA sessions, and projected depth chart positioning. Some at the back-end of this list might have their "breakout" by simply making the team and contributing as a rotational player, while the ones toward the top of the list might have a chance to be a solid starter or even push for a Pro Bowl berth.
After losing Michael Johnson in free agency last year, the Bengals needed to grab a defensive end in an attempt to minimize the blow from his departure. In the third round, the team grabbed West Virginia defensive lineman, Will Clarke in the third round.
The Bengals liked his ability to be disruptive while at the inside or outside positions on the line, as well as his imposing size (6'6", 270 pounds). Still, some pundits found Clarke to be a reach in the third and a bit of a move of desperation. Clarke played in just seven games as a rookie and gathered three tackles and a fumble recovery. His impact was minimal on a line that had the lowest quarterback sack total in the league last season.
Why Clarke Makes The List:
There are two factors at play here: gaining an opportunity and preparation before the opportunity arose. The opportunity I'm speaking of is an increase of reps due to the injury to fellow defensive end Margus Hunt. Since, Johnson, who returned to the Bengals this offseason, noted that Clarke is "flying around" on the field. With the team adding a lot of bodies along the defensive line, it's good to see that Clarke is putting his best foot forward in 2015.
In terms of preparation, it was noted that Clarke had been hitting the weights extremely hard this offseason. Molding himself into the behemoth-like defensive ends that the Bengals seem to like, Clarke was said to have gained 20 pounds since last year due to intense workouts and his own desire to be a better pro. "I knew I had to improve my strength if I want to be a dominant player in the league," Clarke said back in late April.
On paper, Clarke will have trouble getting extensive playing time next year. Carlos Dunlap and Johnson are the starters, while Wallace Gilberry should be back as a rotational guy. Hunt will be battling Clarke for time and maybe even a roster spot, but the former Mountaineer has that versatility gene that could play in his favor. With increased bulk, the idea could be to kick Clarke inside on passing downs while being flanked by the other aforementioned talented rushers. Cincinnati is looking to re-employ the rotation in 2015 that made them so effective from 2009-2013 up front. Clarke should be in that mix.
Though there are similarities (i.e. position, draft spot, size), Clarke's playing style isn't like Johnson's. If Clarke can contribute with 4-6 sacks and other pressures this season as a back-up, that would be a huge boost to last year's ailing pass-rush. He has the potential, especially since he was in our honorable mentions in this series last year.