Mr. December Kenny Clark's strong finish could help Packers -- and his wallet

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- In the late 1990s, Matt Hassbelbeck earned the nickname "Mr. August" for how he carved up teams in the preseason. The Green Bay Packers used that to trade the backup quarterback to the Seattle Seahawks, and Hasselbeck parlayed that into a stellar career.

Now, there's a new player who owns a different month.

It's Mr. December, Kenny Clark.

The Packers nose tackle could parlay that into a blockbuster contract extension, all while helping the defense round into form just in time for Monday night's NFC North showdown at the Minnesota Vikings and beyond in the playoffs.

Clark, the Packers' first-round pick in 2016, has 3.5 sacks in December, and there are still two games to play. He sacked Mitchell Trubisky twice in last Sunday's win over the Chicago Bears a week after he was credited for 1.5 sacks of Redskins quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Before that, his last sack came in Week 2 against the Vikings.

He's done this before.

In 2017, he had all 4.5 of his sacks from Dec. 3 on. Of his 15.5 career sacks, eight have come in December games -- and he missed three games in the final month of last season because of an elbow injury.

It's nothing new.

"Always. Even in high school and college, I always played better toward the end of the season," Clark said this week.

It's not that Clark wasn't effective the first three months of the season, according to defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery.

"You know what, he's been playing well," Montgomery said. "He has a ton of pressures on the year. It's just when he was getting there, the ball was either getting out and now he's getting the opportunities to finish. I think he's been playing well all year. It's just now you're seeing the sacks. I think when people see the sacks, it's like OK. But when you go look at his pressures on the year, the guy's one of the top pressure guys in the league."

Clark ranks second among pure nose tackles in ESPN's pass rush win rate (10.1%) behind only Pittsburgh's Javon Hargrave. He's third among pure nose tackles in QB pressures and, thanks to the past two weeks, leads his position in sacks with 5.0. One more and he will match his career season high, set last year in 13 games.

That could be just what the Packers' defense needs as teams focus more on Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith. According to ESPN Stats & Information, no outside pass-rusher has been double-teamed more than Za'Darius Smith this season. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has moved Za'Darius inside at times, which not only helps Preston on the edge but also Clark inside.

"Now Kenny's getting legit one-on-ones and we don't have to know where the slides are -- we know," Montgomery said. "He won some opportunities and there were some missed opportunities out there when he got back there and we lost contain, things like that. He probably should've had another one or two on the day, but ‘Z' is a presence to be dealt with. He has been all year.

"He makes people around him better because now, as Kenny does in the run game, a lot of people double him. In the pass game, people are looking to double 'Z' and then they're chipping Preston and then that leaves somebody else free. They must think he's not a good rusher, so he'll take whatever he can get."

Clark has been the workhorse of the Packers' defensive line. He's played 82.6% of the defensive snaps, which is an accomplishment considering how often Pettine use his sub packages that feature only one or two defensive linemen instead of three in the base defense.

"Kenny's been all over the place really being disruptive in both the run game and the pass game," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

Clark has to be No. 1 on the Packers' list of priorities for contract extensions. He just turned 24 in October, and he's under contract for next season under the fifth-year option the team exercised last spring at a $7.69 million price. But the Packers would rather work out a new deal that could help lower his salary-cap number for next year while giving him a large signing bonus and long-term security.

To that end, Clark hired a new agent, veteran Doug Hendrickson, this year.

But Clark's strong finish should be all the negotiating points he needs.

"I've been saying it for the whole year: If I keep doing what I'm doing, I know I'm going to get paid," Clark said. "I'm not worried about that part. I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing. That's what Doug tells me, that's what everybody tells me, and it's going to happen."