Defensive end was a major weakness for the 2017 Cincinnati Bengals.
Part of that was due to Will Clarke failing to live up to his billing as a former third-round pick who Cincinnati had high hopes for. Where does Clarke stand on the current depth chart, and what are his odds of remaining on the 53-man roster in 2017?
Position: Defense end
College: West Virginia
Hometown: Pittsburgh, Pa.
Experience: Fourth-year player in 2017.
Clarke is on the final year of his rookie contract. He’s set to have a cap hit of $851,345 in 2017. If released, Clarke will have a dead cap hit of $136,345, according to Spotrac.
Every defense needs depth at the defensive end position, especially with the NFL being as pass-happy as it has become. That's why those third and fourth defensive ends on a team’s roster can be key players who get a heavy amount of snaps throughout the season.
Unfortunately, that’s a role Clarke has failed to impress in thus far in his NFL career. Entering his fourth NFL season at 26-years-old, Clarke didn’t see the field much in his first two NFL seasons as a reserve end. There was opportunity last season, in his third year in the league, as Michael Johnson struggled, but, he didn’t provide a significant spark and when he received more playing time, he failed to significantly impress.
The Bengals originally drafted Clarke in the third round out of West Virginia in 2014 as a project pass-rusher. Almost immediately, Clarke drew comparisons to Johnson, another former third-round player in Cincinnati. Seeing how well Johnson's career has played out (especially prior to Clarke being drafted), you can see why Cincinnati took another swing hoping that could find another key contributor.
But after two seasons, Clarke had only produced 0.5 sacks and seven total tackles. He did show some improvement last season and recorded a career-high four sacks and 15 total tackles.
Even so, these numbers are far from productive, especially for a guy who ended up playing in 15 games and for 372 snaps (34.22 percent of defensive snaps). Pro Football Focus ranked Clarke 97th out of 109 eligible edge defenders (4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers) on the season.
Clarke was given a chance to have a big role with this team, and he was unable to rise to the occasion.
After the Bengals drafted Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis to help add more spice to the pass rush, Clarke is facing some stiff odds of making the final roster. Making matters worse for Clarke is that Wallace Gilberry was re-signed this offseason. He re-joined the team late last season and still was more productive than Clarke during the final two games with 2.5 sacks (Gilberry’s 44.5 PFF grade would have been higher than Clarke’s 43.0 grade, had Gilberry played enough snaps to be eligible for the ranking).
It helps Gilberry that he can also play defensive tackle, whereas Clarke is strictly an end. Depending on how many linemen the Bengals keep, Clarke is fighting for the fourth or fifth end spot.
And don’t count out Ryan Brown in this battle either. He showed a lot of promise in training camp and the preseason last year. Brown is also under contract past 2017, which could help get him the nod over Clarke if it’s a close battle.
The good news for Clarke is that Margus Hunt is gone, not to mention Lawson is being listed as an outside linebacker. That means this could be a situation where Willis simply replaces Hunt’s roster spot, and Clarke ends up keeping his. The Bengals also added Chris Smith in a trade from Jacksonville, and he'll offer some competition with Clarke to make the roster, too.
In the final year of Clarke’s rookie deal, he’s no lock to make the final roster in September.
Odds: 35 percent