Will Clarke’s NFL career has developed very slowly.
The Cincinnati Bengals selected Clarke the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft for his frame, movement skills, and leadership. Unfortunately, in the three seasons he has spent with the Bengals, his production on the field has left a lot to be desired. He has struggled to find playing time among a not-so-crowded defensive end position, and has only recorded 22 total tackles, 4.5 sacks, two pass deflections, and 1 fumble recovery in 35 games. Last year, the Bengals tried to get Clarke actively involved in the defensive end rotation but he was up-and-down in early action and his success decreased despite increased time on the field as the season progressed. Pro Football Focus ranked Clarke the league's 98th best defensive end (out of 110 graded players) and gave him a poor 45.5 grade in 2016, the worst grade of his NFL career.
The Bengals added talent at defensive end via the draft and free agency and in the final year of his rookie contract, Clarke may need to find new and creative ways to get involved on defense if he’s going to make the 53-man roster.
For that reason, it makes sense why Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com is discussing the team’s desire to see Clarke contribute at defensive tackle, in addition to end, thereby increasing his chances for playing time and development:
...there are not only two high draft picks from this class making a run on the edge (third-rounder Jordan Willis and fourth-rounder Carl Lawson), but a fourth-rounder from 2015 (Marcus Hardison), who, like Gilberry, can play both end and tackle. That’s also the hope for 2014 third-rounder Will Clarke. But Gilberry has done it while Hardison has yet to play a game because of injury and Clarke is still seeking consistent reps in the final year of his deal.
Although it is true Clarke needs to find more chances to contribute in his contract year, doing it by contributing at defensive tackle is an interesting direction. At 6’6” and 271 pounds, Clarke’s frame seems much too thin to play at defensive tackle. The only defensive tackle currently on the roster who’s less than 300 pounds is DeShawn Williams at 295 pounds, and he is nearly half a foot shorter than Clarke.
Granted, one of Clarke’s best traits as a defensive lineman is his ability to stack and shed. His ability to penetrate through the line translates very well to the defensive tackle position. But, his tendency to play tall and with little power makes his ability to find much success at the position questionable.
In fairness, Clarke has always been seen as a very coachable player, so if the Bengals are looking to teach him a new position, it could make sense. He is much too tall to be an effective linebacker and has never exhibited any proficiency in pass coverage, so the only move that makes any sense for him would be on the inside, especially considering how open the Bengals’ defensive tackle position is right now.
Still, it is difficult to see Clarke making such a big change and managing to beat out guys like Williams and Hardison for a spot at defensive tackle, even considering he will likely still be primarily considered a reserve defensive end. However, perhaps a shot in the dark is what Clarke needs in his contract year. Something has to give, whether it be his ability to find opportunities on the field, or the Bengals’ continued patience with his development. If he does not improve, it would be very difficult to see the Bengals justifying a contract extension, let alone finding a spot for him on a crowded 53-man roster in 2017.
What do you think? Should the Bengals give Clarke a shot at defensive tackle?