As all 32 NFL teams do, the Bengals entered their first preseason game with many questions needing to be answered.
Arguably, the biggest question facing the team this preseason is who the third defensive end will be on the depth chart. Today's NFL demands that the third end be effectively another starter, not to mention someone who offers an effective pass rush.
Since Margus Hunt is failing miserably at that, Will Clarke has a golden opportunity to claim that job. Judging by his first preseason game, he knows it, and he's hell-bent on winning it.
On Friday, Clarke had arguably the best game of his young NFL career, including the past two preseasons. Clarke has simply never had a game in which he made a positive impact from start to finish, and on Friday he had one of the most complete games of any Bengals player.
In the run game, Clarke consistently held his ground and maintained gap integrity. He managed to do so against several double teams that came at him by play design.
Clarke even got push into the backfield and disrupted several plays that should have resulted in losses, the most obvious of which being the missed safety that was due in part to Hunt getting completely blown out of his gap.
Clarke's bust off the line and ability to rip through pass-blockers also looked improved.
Sure, it's only one game, but that one game was far more than we've seen before out of Clarke, who’s now entering a critical Year 3. After being drafted in the third round out of West Virginia in 2014, Clarke rarely saw the field his rookie year, despite the Bengals finishing dead last in sacks.
Clarke was drafted primarily to replace Michael Johnson after he left to sign with Tampa Bay that year. However, Johnson came back in 2015, which led to a primary rotation of Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry at end in 2015. Even in the occasional snaps that Clarke did get, as well as some lengthy preseason performances, he never looked like a player capable of making a positive impact for this defense.
With Gilberry in Detroit, Clarke is poised to be the next man up if he keeps playing the way he did against the Vikings. It was good enough that Clarke's spot on the final roster should feel very secure by now, even though considering the state of the Bengals’ defensive end depth, his job was secure to begin with. More importantly, Clarke should feel good about his chances of playing early and often in 2016.