Second-year guard Cameron Clark is one of the New York Jets’ biggest wild cards. His intriguing film at Charlotte reminds us of what he offers.
The New York Jets entered the 2021 offseason with a need at both guard spots, but here in mid-May, only one of those two spots has been filled with a clear-cut replacement. Alijah Vera-Tucker is set to take over as a starting guard (presumably on the left side) after the Jets traded up to nab him with the 14th overall pick, but the guard spot opposite Vera-Tucker remains a question mark.
Greg Van Roten currently appears slated to maintain the right guard spot, where he started 13 games last year. Van Roten enjoyed a very good middle of the season, but he started the year atrociously and finished it playing at a below-average level. Overall, he looked like exactly what he is: a decent veteran stopgap. His overall grade of 63.0 at Pro Football Focus ranked 21st out of 32 qualified right guards.
Van Roten is far from the worst stopgap in the league. If he starts and proves to be the worst player on the line, he would probably be one of the best weak links in the league and the Jets would likely be in great shape upfront. Nonetheless, the Jets can still stand to upgrade immensely over him and they do not have their long-term solution at the position yet.
Enter Cameron Clark, the 129th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2020 draft. With the potential to provide an upgrade over Van Roten and establish himself as the Jets’ second long-term guard, he is one of the biggest X-factors on the roster.
Clark was a dominant left tackle in college for the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, but he projects as a guard at the NFL level. He did not get any game action as a rookie, missing the first eight games of the season with a knee injury and then failing to crack the starting lineup despite injuries to four of the five offensive line starters.
Nobody outside of 1 Jets Drive knows for sure why Clark did not see the field in 2020. When the Jets needed replacements at the guard spots, Pat Elflein and Josh Andrews were chosen to start over Clark, and they continued to start over him despite each playing like two of the absolute worst guards in the league. Was Clark so bad in practice that he could not overcome a pair of major liabilities to earn playing time, or did the Jets always plan to redshirt him barring an emergency?
We can only speculate as to the true answer to that question, but what we do know is that Clark is a second-year pro who is only 23 years old, has highly impressive college tape on his resume, and has yet to play an NFL snap. The sheer unknown of Clark – especially when coupled with the possibility that he could represent an upgrade at a QB-supporting position where the current starter is lackluster – makes him one of the team’s most intriguing young pieces.
The last time Clark was seen playing real football, he was dominating at left tackle for the Charlotte 49ers. In 2019, he was a two-way force, ranking at the 98th percentile among the nation’s tackles with a measly allowed pressure rate of 1.4% and grading the road in the run game with an 81.6 PFF zone-blocking grade that ranked at the 92nd percentile.
Let’s take a look back at some of Clark’s film from Charlotte to refamiliarize ourselves with his game.
Pass protection technique
Clark was a stalwart blindside protector in 2019, giving up zero sacks, one quarterback hit, and four hurries over 13 starts and 354 total snaps in pass protection. While he probably will not be playing tackle at the NFL level, there are positive aspects of his technique that are translatable to the inside, particularly the work that he did with his hands.
Taking on the 6-technique defensive end (lined up over the tight end), Clark swats down the rusher’s outstretched inside arm, gains control of his inside shoulder, and then gets both hands on top of the rusher’s shoulders to shove him down into the ground.
Clark takes on the 5-technique. Clark’s two-hand punch lands too high, hitting the defender on the shoulders, but he is able to recover and win the rep thanks to his grip strength. Although Clark shoots high, he is still able to gain control as he grabs onto the defender by his shoulder pads. How is Clark able to do this?
With his mammoth 11-inch hands, a size that ranks at the 97th percentile all-time among offensive linemen. Clark never ceases control of the defender, and he eventually yanks him into the ground to finish him off.
Clark drops into a vertical set against the stand-up edge rusher. The edge slows up and clearly telegraphs an inside spin move, so Clark prepares himself to take it on.
The Charlotte product waits for the defender to have his back turned to him, and once that window opens, Clark brings both hands up and into the armpits of the defender to affirm a grip. Clark reworks his hands into the hips and carries the defender up the arc. Spin move thwarted.
Good stunt pickup. Clark is put at a disadvantage as he takes a wide set against an ET stunt (edge crashes down, tackle loops out), but he is able to recover. Clark extends his inside hand to make contact and drops his inside foot back so he can slide inside and help to pass off the edge rusher to the left guard.
Clark uses his left hand to push the edge rusher inside by his hip, and in the process, Clark propels off of the edge rusher to rotate his hips outside and successfully pick up the looping defensive tackle.
Manhandling Clemson defenders in the run game
Impressively, Clark posted the best run-blocking grade of his career against the best opponent he ever faced, posting a stupendous 82.1 run-blocking grade against No. 1 Clemson in 2019.
Clark made the Tigers look like cubs in an eye-popping performance that was littered with pancake blocks, flashing his potential to be a true road-grader at the NFL level.
Clark uses circular force to kick out the 5-technique, using his inside hand to strike the 5-tech’s inside shoulder and simultaneously rotating his hips outside to move the defender toward the sideline.
Clark stays with the play after generating the initial push, pursuing the defender and latching onto him. He plays through the whistle and buries his man.
Clark takes on the 4i-technique, who crashes hard to the inside. Clark uses the defender’s momentum against him, allowing the defender to ride himself out of the play. The defender finishes the play like a folded-up lawn chair.
Clark again takes on the 5-technique and focuses on moving him outside, and once again, he successfully uses circular force with his inside hand to win the play. Clark throws No. 34 into the ground pretty effortlessly.
Clark pulls to the right side. It’s far from the most agile pull you’ll ever see, but he frames the linebacker well and then throws him into the ground.
Another nice job of kicking out the 5-technique. Clark adds a little bit of extra mustard this time around. The defender gets a little greedy and tries to bend around the edge. Clark snatches the defender, using his outside hand to grab the defender’s chest and his inside hand to grab the defender’s back.
Clark channels his full-body momentum and thrusts it through his outside arm into the chest of the defender, slamming him to the mat for a first-round KO.
Yet another excellent kick-out block on the edge defender, and yet another instance of Clark finishing with some nastiness. The defender comes into Clark with heavy forward lean and his head ducked out in front. Clark punishes him for it, influencing his momentum downwards and then driving on top of his back to pancake him.
Great awareness and positioning from Clark here. He lets the backside defenders go and climbs to the second level looking for a more direct threat to the ball carrier. Clark finds the defensive end charging hard into the B-gap, on a crash course with the running back.
Clark picks him up and uses the defender’s momentum against him to help define an obvious cutback lane for the back, which the back successfully notices and uses as he runs straight behind Clark for a big gain.
The 3-technique aggressively throws his body into the B-gap looking to muddy up the trenches. Clark works down and gets on top of the 3-tech, pancaking him.
Clark kicks out to block a safety standing up on the edge. He squares his body up to the defender extremely well, also keeping his hands tight and getting them into the defender’s chest. Clark maintains a strong grip on the defender’s chest and drives him out of the picture.
Clark works a double-team with the left guard on the nose tackle and they drive him about five yards downfield. Great job by the two players of equally splitting the man, allowing them to maximize their power and gain full control.
If Clark does not pan out, it’s no biggie for Joe Douglas. He was a fourth-round pick. Most fourth-round picks do not become starters. All third-day draft selections should be expected to do almost nothing, with any value that they provide being a sweet bonus.
Regardless, it’s exciting to think about how huge of a positive impact Clark could have on the present and future of the Jets in the off chance that he does indeed fulfill his potential and become a solid starter in 2021. Should Clark take a second-year jump, becoming a present-day upgrade over Van Roten and securing his spot as a long-term starter, it would be a massive, massive victory for the health of the roster and the quality of the supporting cast around Zach Wilson.
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