Young Kenny Clark will have to grow up quickly for Packers' defense

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers felt good about the way Kenny Clark finished last season.

They'd better, considering how much they’re going to need him at the beginning of this season.

Their first-round draft pick from last year already was in line for a larger role in 2017 and now that fellow defensive tackle Letroy Guion will miss the first four games because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension that was announced by the NFL on Tuesday, it will be up to the 21-year-old to make a significant impact in Year 2 for the Packers.

Not only will Clark be counted in the base 3-4 defense but he could be the one paired with Mike Daniels as the lone defensive linemen in the oft-used nickel package. Guion played more snaps last season than Clark but by late in the year, Clark’s playing time increased significantly. After he played in just seven snaps in the Dec. 4 game against the Texans, his workload spiked. Over the final seven games, including playoffs, he averaged 24.6 snaps per game.

“Kenny, if you just watch the progression of the season, his arrow was straight up,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last week at the NFL scouting combine. “I thought he played extremely well the last six weeks. That’s something we need to build off. I think he’ll take that big jump as a second-year player. It starts in the weight room.”

Perhaps the best thing about Clark is his age. He was the youngest player taken in the first round last year, when the Packers picked him at No. 27 overall. He didn’t turn 21 until Oct. 4. By then, he had already played in three NFL regular-season games. Clark became the youngest player to appear in a Packers season opener since 1930 (when Arnie Herber also played at age 20). He finished third among Packers defensive linemen with 30 tackles.

“I think Kenny is coming along well,” Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said late in the season.

Clark isn’t the only young defensive lineman the Packers will count on next season. Dean Lowry, a fourth-round pick last season, also saw his playing time spike late last season, especially after defensive end Mike Pennel got suspended for the final four games of the regular season. Lowry recorded his only two sacks of the season in consecutive December games against Houston and Seattle.

With Pennel gone (the Packers cut him after his suspension ran out in January) and Guion lost for the first four weeks of this coming season, expect to see a lot more of Clark and Lowry in 2017.