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Why Will Clarke is the Bengals’ breakout player this season

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Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White expects Clarke to be Cincy’s top defensive end this season.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

If you look at the Bengals' roster, it is apparent that they have a type when it comes to defensive ends. They like tall, lean guys who have long arms and can play with power. Will Clarke could very well be the prototype for what they tend to look for.

He's tall at 6'6, not real big, but not exactly small at 270 pounds or so. He has those long arms and can play both left and right defensive end as well as inside as a rush defensive tackle, which shows you how versatile he is. Clarke, now headed into his fourth season, also just continues to get better and better.

Clarke was a backup swing defensive end last season, rotating in a lot on both sides. He ended up with four sacks, which was a half a sack more than one of the guys he was backing up, Michael Johnson.

Johnson has been a mainstay in Cincy, save his disastrous one-year stint with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he is now headed into his ninth year, so he is a bit older than Clarke. And more expensive.

The truth is Johnson has only had one year in his career with more than six sacks and that was back in 2012. Between he and Clarke, there is no question that Clarke is the ascending player. So I would imagine that the Bengals have to be wondering if it’s time to let Clarke take over as a starter and either let Johnson go or keep him around as just a backup.

Normally when you have a situation like that where two guys are pretty even at one position, you go with the younger, cheaper guy so you can build for the future. And I do think Clarke's film last season as a backup was at least as good as, if not better than, Johnson's. Hell, they looked like carbon copies against the run for the most part, but Clarke was more active with his hands as a pass rusher. With his height and long arms, he was at least as adept at knocking down passes at the line as Johnson.

Now, I'm not saying Clarke will definitely be the starter this year, because we all know that the Bengals aren't necessarily known for doing what seems logical to everyone else. All I'm saying is that Clarke played well enough last year that it should at least be a consideration for them.

Even if Clarke doesn't overtake Johnson as a starter, this season should still certainly be a big one for him. Especially if the Bengals continue to rush him inside on passing downs opposite of Geno Atkins. That should give him plenty of one-on-one pass-rush opportunities both inside and outside, and I think Clarke is going to make the most of them. By season’s end I would expect Clarke to be close to double-digit sack numbers and probably starting somewhere on the defensive line.

I think Will Clarke will in fact be an upgrade over Johnson this year no matter how much he plays, and that’s why I chose him as the Bengals' breakout player.