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Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith falls outside top-10 in ESPN’s survey of interior defenders

Clark made the top-10 list after a superb 2019 season — frankly, he was too low at No. 10 — but a sub-par year by his standards kept him off the list. His return to form is critical for Green Bay.

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers
Kenny Clark made ESPN’s top-10 last after his excellent 2019 season, but couldn’t keep it going for 2020.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

It might not be a full snub, but perhaps snub-adjacent. Kenny Clark failed to capture the magic of his stellar 2019 season in 2020, but after being under-ranked in last year’s ESPN league survey list of top interior defenders, Clark fell off it altogether in this year’s version. Meanwhile the league did it again to Za’Darius Smith, with a full-on #snubbed situation, putting Smith outside the league’s top-10 edge players, despite back-to-back monster seasons.

Despite a sub-par season by his standards, Clark only barely fell from last season when he slid into the top-10. The Pro Football Focus grades illustrate the drop. Last year, Clark finished 30th in defensive grade among interior defenders who played at least 200 snaps, falling all the way from 13th. His pass rush suffered the most, going from 3rd among those interior defenders, behind only Aaron Donald and Chris Jones, to 39th.

“He was great in the Championship Game, maybe the most disruptive in that game for them. He’s not a big name, but really, really good and underrated,” an NFC executive told ESPN. And while that’s true, that he deserved to be much higher than 10th after his superlative 2019 season, it’s hard to argue his spot in the top 10. Ironically, his reputation is likely the biggest reason he made the list at all.

To be sure, Clark can return to form as one of the elite defensive tackles in football. He’s moving around more this season based on early looks in camp. I wrote last week about the importance of his role in this defense and how a scheme change benefits him. But the Packers need their blue-chip guys to step up because there are some obvious flaws on defense, a system we know to be a weak-link group. If a team has a few holes, the best players have to be really good to make up for it, and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Just look at the playoff game against the Rams last season. Brandon Staley’s defense beguiled teams all season, but Green Bay attacked downhill with Aaron Jones and used play-action to create issues for the linebackers and safeties where L.A. lacks the elite talent they have along the defensive line and at cornerback.

Even Aaron Donald, albeit a diminished version of himself, and Jalen Ramsey weren’t enough to make up for those deficiencies.

ESPN’s Rob Demovsky wondered heading into the season if the Packers boasted enough elite players to be real contenders. The answer may well have been “no” at the time, but before 2020, Jones, Jaire Alexander, Elgton Jenkins, and Za’Darius Smith all fell just off ESPN’s list of top-10 players at their positions.

Smith’s omission was an on-brand snub for him after he’d been the most productive edge rusher in football during the 2019 season, leading the league in pressures. He backed up that outstanding campaign with another terrific season in ‘20, albeit not quite as dominant as his first year in Green Bay.

Elsewhere, Jenkins and Alexander emerged as bona fide blue-chippers at their positions. They are locks to be on the list this year, and Jones likewise had a case both last year and this year to be included. It’s hard to argue with his productivity in Matt LaFleur’s offense.

Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage each could make the top-10 list among safeties, and perhaps both deserve to make it after the way they finished 2020 when they were the best safety duo in football. Amos put together the 2nd-highest graded season among safeties last season according to Pro Football Focus grades, and Savage came in at 11th, though in the second half of the season they were the two highest graded cover safeties in the league.

The high-end talent on this roster is undeniable. If Clark returns to 2019 form, not only can this offense be elite, but so too can the defense.