How can New York Jets guard Cameron Clark forge a successful NFL career as a Day 3 pick out of a non-Power 5 school?
With Alex Lewis and Greg Van Roten in place to hold the fort down at guard (or perhaps Brian Winters), Joe Douglas set the foundation of his interior pipeline through the selection of Charlotte product Cameron Clark at No. 129 overall.
Clark was a dominant left tackle in Conference USA, but it is presumed that the six-foot-four, 308-pound mauler will be transitioning to guard at the next level.
The hope is that Clark can eventually develop into the next long-term piece of Douglas’ offensive line puzzle. Of course, the primary question mark is whether he can translate his dominance in a lesser conference to the next level. One would assume this is the main reason that Clark was available in the fourth round despite allowing only five pressures in his senior season.
Fortunately for Clark, he would be far from the first under-the-radar lineman to become an inspiring success story. Dominant small-school linemen are constantly slipping through the cracks on draft weekend and going on to become core pieces for their franchises. The teams lucky enough to salvage these players reap massive value for years to come.
Which players have laid the groundwork for prospects like Clark to become successful in the NFL?
Two-year development period before Year 3 breakout – T.J. Lang (Green Bay Packers)
Lang came into the 2009 Draft as a senior tackle out of Eastern Michigan, which just suffered through an 0-12 season in the Mid-American Conference. In 2009, MAC teams faced the weakest composite strength of schedule among all 11 FBS conferences. Similarly, Clark’s Conference USA faced the weakest composite schedule in 2019.
The Packers selected Lang in the fourth round with the 109th overall pick. He was the 18th lineman chosen overall and the second out of a non-Power 5 school, after Ball State’s Robert Brewster (R3, #75, Cowboys). Brewster never started a game in the NFL – a reality check as we head through this piece that not all small-schoolers (or draft picks in general) succeed. Far from it.
Lang took the slow-and-steady path to success with Green Bay. In his rookie season, Lang played in all 16 games but mostly appeared on special teams as an extra lineman.
However, Lang did show enough for the staff to trust him as a second-stringer. Lang started three games in relief as a rookie, two coming at left tackle and one at right tackle. He showed promise in the run game when in the starting lineup (76.7 average Pro Football Focus grade), but struggled in pass protection, allowing 10 pressures over 130 protection snaps. Lang gave up three sacks in one game against the Vikings, lining up at left tackle in that contest.
In his second season (Green Bay’s championship campaign), Lang was never called upon to start as the Packers’ first-team offensive line stayed incredibly healthy. Four of the five opening-week starters never missed a game. When 11-year Packers veteran Mark Tauscher went down at right tackle in Week 4, it was undrafted rookie Bryan Bulaga taking over for the rest of the season. Lang would play in 12 regular season games and two playoff games, appearing sporadically on offense.
With veteran left guard Daryn Colledge off to Arizona, a spot opened up for Lang in his third season. Lang converted from tackle to the interior (as we expect Clark to) and started all 16 games at left guard in 2011. Having logged two years of seasoning to start his career, he performed excellently. Lang allowed only 13 pressures (2 sacks) over 635 protection snaps in his first season as a starter, ranking seventh out of 58 qualifying guards in pass blocking efficiency.
Lang started 91 regular season games and 11 playoff games for the Packers from 2011-16, with his first two seasons at left guard and the latter four at right guard. He was consistently graded as one of the best guards in football.
Clark is expected by many to compete for a starting spot in his second season, but Lang demonstrated that there are instances where a player can benefit from multiple years of development to start his career. Of course, Clark does not have elite veterans in front of him like Lang did, but it is worth keeping in mind that some players need more time to adjust than others.