GREEN BAY – As the Packers cleaned out their lockers last week, Kenny Clark took a few extra moments to appreciate 2023 for all it was.
Professionally, Clark was part of a resurgent Green Bay roster that stunned naysayers when it rallied from a 3-6 midseason record to push the eventual NFC champion San Francisco 49ers to the brink in the divisional round of the playoffs.
On a personal level, Clark had the opportunity to play in front of his father for the first time in nearly 20 years, establish new career highs in both sacks (7½) and quarterback hits (16), and match his previous single-season bests in tackles for loss (nine), pass deflections (three) and forced fumbles (two).
The cherry on top of it all came Tuesday when it was announced the eight-year veteran would replace San Francisco defensive tackle Javon Hargrave in this weekend's Pro Bowl Games in Orlando. It marks Clark's third Pro Bowl appearance, one shy of Pro Football Hall of Famer Henry Jordan (four) for most by a Packers defensive tackle. Dave "Hawg" Hanner (two) is the only other Green Bay defensive tackle to make multiple Pro Bowls.
Asked during Green Bay's final locker room availability last Monday where Clark would rank his 2023 campaign compared to his previous seven in the NFL, the 28-year-old defensive tackle didn't have to think long about his answer.
"It's definitely right at the top," Clark said. "I'm proud about how I played, moving around this year, and playing a lot of the five (-technique defensive lineman), adjusting to that. I think I've really been consistent all year and had my career high in sacks and a lot of things this year."
It was a year of transition and adjustment for Clark, who was tasked with leading one of the youngest position groups on the roster after both Dean Lowry (Minnesota) and Jarran Reed (Seattle) left in free agency. The Packers entered the season with only one other defensive lineman with an NFL start on his resume, T.J. Slaton with two.
To help accommodate the 6-foot-4, 330-pound Slaton and 2022 first-round pick Devonte Wyatt, Clark was asked to line up against offensive tackles in the five-technique spot more this season in the base defense. He not only still led Green Bay defensive linemen in tackles (44) for the eighth straight season, but also kept applying pressure on passing downs.
With those 7½ sacks, Clark moved past Bryce Paup for ninth place in Packers annals with 34 career sacks. He also surpassed Mike Daniels and Cullen Jenkins (29 sacks each) for most career sacks among Green Bay defensive linemen since it became an official statistic in 1982.
"You could argue he's been our most consistent performer on that side of the ball, I would say, throughout the course of the season," said Head Coach Matt LaFleur when asked about Clark in late December. "You can always bank on the fact that you're going to get his best effort."
The on-field performance has come to be expected from Clark, who hasn't missed a game in three seasons and started 109 of 123 contests in which he's played for the Packers. But where the eight-year veteran felt he grew the most this season was with his vocal leadership, especially during a rollercoaster year for the defense.
Clark never panicked and kept the course for a defensive line that was at its best down the stretch. Like Clark, both Wyatt and Slaton notched career years while draft picks Karl Brooks and Colby Wooden contributed right out of the gate as rookies.
"The sky's the limit for our team. I think we've seen that," Clark said. "I think we've seen (how) you prepare, you work hard, we practice, and we come in with the right intentions how we do every day, the results … it will handle itself.
"I think as the year started carrying on, guys started really to buy into that and started figuring that out. The main thing next year is to never get away from that. We know the talent that we've got."
Clark acknowledges there will be more outsiders patting the Packers on the back given how many players return from a squad that won 10 games (including playoffs) and is coming off its fourth playoff appearance in five years.
In Clark's mind, however, the key is remembering what it felt like when the team was clawing its way to the seventh and final seed in the NFC playoffs. In other words, now is not the time to get complacent. It's time to seize an opportunity.
"Just looking forward into the future, knowing that we've got something good," Clark said. "Knowing that I've got something to build up off of, I'm excited about what we could do."