2015 may be a big year for Bengals defensive end Will Clarke.
After being drafted in the third round out of West Virginia last year, Clarke rarely saw the field his rookie year, despite the Bengals finishing dead last in sacks. Clarke was drafted in the third round of the 2014 draft to replace Michael Johnson after he left to sign with Tampa Bay last year.
Though Johnson ended up re-signing with the Bengals after the Bucs cut him this year, he's now on the mend for 4+ weeks after spraining his MCL during Sunday's practice. Wallace Gilberry also was knocked out of practice with a hamstring injury that also kept him out Monday while Margus Hunt remains on PUP with a back injury.
That's given Clarke the chance to earn more repetitions in training camp and potentially through the preseason, something he's already taking advantage of, as Jay Morrison of the Dayton Daily News writes:
"It is an opportunity, but you never want to see anyone go down," Clarke said. "Myself personally, and I’m sure anyone else in the locker room, we’d rather work to get to the spot with everyone healthy rather than see someone get hurt and then move up. But with that being said, we have to step in and pick up and not have a drop off where Mike left off."
Clarke is still essentially a rookie after playing just 64 snaps in 2014 after a rough outing in the preseason. He needed a year to bulk up after joining the Bengals as a 6-foot-6, 271-pound pass-rushing prospect. He recorded two quarterback pressures and three tackles during the regular season and notched a quarterback sack in the preseason. Clarke also recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter against New Orleans.
That led to Clarke putting on 20 pounds this offseason to bulk up and become the kind of end who can both rush the passer and set the edge in run defense. That's what it takes to be a 4-3 end in Cincinnati's defense, though pass-rushing is what the Bengals need help with most.
"I’m not getting displaced as easily as I was last year.,' Clarke said. "I’m not getting moved as easy."
Even with that extra weight, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther doesn't see any loss in speed and quickness with Clarke.
"He’s kept his quickness, so he’ll be able to be more of physical guy in there against the run and still do a good job of getting off the ball quickly in the pass rush," Guenther said. "Now it’s time for him to show that he can use his weight and get it behind him.
"Not only can he play both the left and right sides, he can go inside if we need him to as well. When you’ve got a tall guy like who can get his hands up in the quarterback’s face, it can be really disruptive. He’s multi-dimensional."
If a game was played today, Clarke would likely be getting around 20-30 snaps at end with Hunt, Johnson and Gilberry all battling injuries. That's how quickly Clarke has gone from just fighting for a roster spot to now being the starter next to Carlos Dunlap. By all indications, Clarke is handling the role well early on in training camp.
If he can continue that through camp and into the preseason, Clarke will not only lock up his spot on the 53-man roster, but possibly a significant role in the defense this coming year.