In the third installment of our series, we take another contrarian position, arguing the other side of the takes we may be seeing in social media and from national pundits on the Kansas City Chiefs. This week, we’re taking on the belief that Frank Clark is a problem — and arguing that he might just have a career year in 2021.
The current prevailing thought: Frank Clark has been a bad signing, not worth his giant contract — and the Chiefs are just waiting until the day they can get rid of him without too much dead money.
The other side: Clark has been an integral part of the defensive turnaround and the cultural shift in Kansas City, and he’s poised for his best season yet.
Something had to change after the defensive collapse that cost the Chiefs a shot at a Lamar Hunt trophy — and likely a Lombardi trophy. In fact, nearly everything had to change. The Chiefs defense was ranked 31st in the league, had failed to adjust under former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton and featured older, oft-injured leaders that were never quite able to get the best out of their teammates. It was painful to see Eric Berry and Justin Houston get cut in one offseason. It was less upsetting to learn Dee Ford had been traded and Bob Sutton was fired.
On March 11, 2019, Tyrann Mathieu signed a contract that we’re hoping he renews soon. Mathieu took over as the defense's emotional leader, but he couldn’t do it by himself. The Chiefs desperately needed to find a pass rush without sacrificing run defense up front. On April 23, 2019, we learned that they’d acquire and sign Frank Clark as the cornerstone of the new front seven. Clark would bring toughness and assignment-sound run defense not seen on a Chiefs defense in recent memory. He was coming off of his most productive season, a 13-sack 2018 campaign, and he was known to possess a nonstop motor and a fiery demeanor that would rally a defense around him and the vocal Mathieu.
The cost was high, both in terms of the trade and the new contract. It took a 2019 first-round pick, a 2020 second-round pick and a swap of 2019 third-round picks to pry Clark away from Seattle. As part of the deal, the Chiefs agreed to pay Clark $105.5 million over the next five years, with $63.5 of it guaranteed.
That investment set an expectation in the minds of fans and pundits that would be nearly impossible to live up to. Chiefs fans expected to see one of the top defenders in the NFL making impact plays on a regular basis. Most Arrowhead Pride fans approved of the trade, but at 57% to 43%, it was closer than the polls for most other substantial moves we’ve seen.
The Chiefs did nothing to lower expectations, reportedly commenting that Clark was already among the best pass rushers in the league and even a potential DPOY. As compared to his predecessors, Clark appeared to be remarkably durable, missing only two games in the four years before the trade.
“The guy is better than (Jadeveon) Clowney, (Demarcus) Lawrence, (Joey) Bosa,” one source told The Athletic in assessing Clark’s ability. “Only guy better is (Khalil) Mack. He’s the second-best pass-rusher in (the) league.” “The Chiefs believe Clark has the elite skill set — complemented by Spagnuolo’s 4-3 scheme — to someday be the league’s defensive player of the year.”
In his first Chiefs season, Clark had eight sacks, 12 tackles for loss, an interception and three forced fumbles during the regular season. Had he been on a smaller contract, that would have been solid production in the minds of most observers. But he also missed two regular-season games and wasn’t really close to the conversation around the best pass rushers in the league.
Then came the postseason run — and a second nickname for Frank Clark. The Shark became The Closer, seemingly ending each game, and he racked up five sacks, including three in the Divisional Round, one to close out the AFC championship game and one in the Super Bowl.
2020 would be his opportunity to show up healthy and dominate more consistently, or at least we hoped. The Chiefs renewed their commitment by restructuring Clark’s contract to clear cap space and make Clark even more difficult to cut. But Clark again would have somewhat disappointing returns in the regular season, with only six sacks. However, The Closer did make another strong appearance in the playoffs, with three sacks, including two in the AFC championship game.
So what led to the dropoff in production?
We eventually found out that Clark had been battling through several ailments, including a cervical neck strain and some hamstring issues, but also a mysterious stomach ailment that caused him to lose significant weight and play at less than full strength for much of his Chiefs career. Clark displayed tremendous toughness and resolve, playing through whatever he was battling without complaint or excuses.
Still, many media and fans would look forward to the 2022 season when the Chiefs could release Clark, saving nearly $14 million on the cap and cutting off the two biggest years on his backloaded contract.
Then, in 2021, Clark reportedly was arrested not once but twice for weapons-related charges on traffic stops. There was a lot of speculation at the time that Clark would be suspended or that the Chiefs would try to void his contract guarantees to move on as soon as possible.
So, what has changed?
The backlash from the arrests has died down, as the team and the league appears to be content waiting for the legal process to play out before making any decisions on discipline. Meanwhile, Clark is firmly in the team’s plans, given the fact that they currently carry only five EDGE players (counting Chris Jones). There’s no other proven pass rusher at defensive end other than Clark, and Alex Okafor, who will be in a backup role this season.
Unfortunately, Clark struggled in the preseason with hamstring injuries, as he has multiple times in his career. So, we haven’t seen this year’s version of Clark on the field yet. But he’s reportedly bulked back up and looks the part once again.
Perhaps there’s a more important factor than Clark’s weight that comes into play this season. Clark’s best season as a professional coincided with the best season for Jarran Reed when each set a career-high and had double-digit sacks playing together in Seattle. Reunited in Kansas City, with an elite pass rusher in Chris Jones, these two may form one of the most formidable trios in the league. Jones is likely to command the most attention, whether rushing from inside or outside, leaving more one-on-one matchups for Reed and Clark to exploit.
Clark’s contributions from 2019 and 2020 perhaps went overlooked. With Clark and Mathieu as leaders, that 31st-ranked Chiefs defense from 2018 became a middle-of-the-pack unit. As many of us had hoped, that was enough to put this team in Super Bowl contention every season, resulting in two AFC titles and one Super Bowl ring. That’s not a coincidence. Clark’s leadership, accountability and doing the less-glorious jobs on the field have been critical in the team’s improvement. Clark is still a very stout run defender, who plays hard on every down, and helps set the tone for this team.
If Clark is healthier in 2021, and the legal troubles remain a non-issue, there is plenty of reason to believe he’ll be back in the double-digit sack category — and closing out games that matter.
If the Chiefs are playing on February 13, 2022, Clark will be one of the primary reasons, whether everyone is talking about him or not. And if that’s the case, perhaps all along, he was worth every draft pick and penny the Chiefs paid for him.
If Frank Clark has 10-plus sacks and the Chiefs win the Super Bowl, is he worth the contract?
This poll is closed
Absolutely, he’s been underrated all along.
Meh, he still takes up too much cap.