INDIANAPOLIS – There’s the second-year jump, and then there’s the next step.
Looking at the Packers’ 2016 draft class, two players unequivocally made the second-year leap in 2017 that coaches covet and that effectively launches their careers.
Defensive tackle Kenny Clark and inside linebacker Blake Martinez were those two players, building on solid rookie years to become defensive front-liners in Year 2.
But what’s expected now?
“You have that next level, and they become core players,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said from the NFL Scouting Combine.
It’s easy to envision Clark and Martinez continuing their progression and joining the likes of Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as core members of Green Bay’s 2018 defense. Morgan Burnett also certainly falls into the same category, but he’s a pending free agent whose future is up in the air.
Clark came on like gangbusters in his second season just when it looked like it might get cut short. A disruptive force against the run all season, he badly injured an ankle in mid-November and was carted off Lambeau Field in a loss to the Ravens.
He missed just one week, though, and went on to rack up 4½ sacks during the Packers’ five December games, the second-most sacks in the league over the final month of the season behind only NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald.
Clark’s first sack in that stretch not only produced a fumble that teammate Dean Lowry ran back for a touchdown, it was surprisingly the first sack of his career. Coming so close so many times through his first 1½ years in the league was admittedly frustrating, but it seemed once he broke through, the dam burst open.
Clark went from 1½ sacks against Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston to another versus Carolina’s Cam Newton, mobile QBs not always easy to track down. He then recorded his first career two-sack game against Minnesota’s Case Keenum in Week 16.
His numbers jumped in practically every meaningful category from his rookie season – tackles (33 to 78), tackles for loss (two to eight), QB hits (three to 11) and QB pressures (four to 10).
Martinez’s second-year jump was just as obvious, as he more than doubled his tackle total (62 to 158) and tripled his TFLs (four to 12). He ranked among the leaders across the entire league in total tackles, and for a linebacker who didn’t see the field much on third down as a rookie, he rarely came to the sideline at all in 2017.
That was due in part to significantly improving his pass coverage, as he ended up ranking second on the team in passes defensed with 11 (up from five in 2016). He also found himself involved in four turnover plays (one forced fumble, two recoveries, one interception) compared to just one the prior year.
If Clark and Martinez can improve their numbers yet again in 2018, new coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense will be all the better, but their growth into core players won’t necessarily be measured in statistics. It’ll come across in everything they do and how they carry themselves.
“Really, it’s in the definition to be an example of a Green Bay Packer,” McCarthy said. “Whatever situation you’re in, whether it’s the classroom environment, practice environment, gameday … you can just go, Kenny Clark, point to that guy. That’s what it looks like.
“That’s the behavior, that’s the production, that’s the result.”
Added General Manager Brian Gutekunst: “Consistent professionalism.”
It’s a tall order, yet if it’s where their careers are headed, it’ll happen naturally. They’ve seen in the Packers’ locker room how it’s done, as players like Daniels, offensive tackle David Bakhtiari, receiver Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley have made the type of progression that has earned contract extensions in advance of hitting free agency.
Now it’s their turn.
“Your core players are the ones that get you through the rough times, the adverse times,” McCarthy said.
“We’re confident those guys can take the next step.”