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Frank Clark is in the company of the elite

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday Field Gulls contributor Lars Russell provided an overview on Seattle Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark, asking readers for their opinions on whether or not the team should sign Clark to a contract extension. In the comments to Lars’ article one visitor decided to voice the opinion that Clark is not an elite pass rusher, putting the Seahawks in a pickle regarding what to do with Clark.

But is that the case? Is Frank Clark elite? Or is he just another pass rusher? To answer that, let’s turn to the Player Season Finder on Pro-Football-Reference.com and see where he stacks up relative to other player through their first three seasons.

Having done that, here’s a list of every single NFL player who played defensive end and had 21.5 or more sacks over the course of their first three seasons since the league began recording sacks as an official stat in 1982.

All NFL DEs with 21.5 or more sacks in their first three seasons since 1982

Player Draft Position Sacks First Three Seasons Career Sacks
Player Draft Position Sacks First Three Seasons Career Sacks
Reggie White 1-4 52 198
Dwight Freeney 1-11 40 125
Richard Dent 8-203 37.5 137.5
J.J. Watt 1-11 36.5 Active
Anthony Smith 1-11 36 57.5
Jevon Kearse 1-16 36 74
Robert Quinn 1-14 34.5 Active
Bruce Smith 1-1 33.5 200
Terrell Suggs 1-10 30.5 Active
Mario Williams 1-1 30.5 97.5
Charles Haley 4-96 30 100.5
Ezekiel Ansah 1-5 30 Active
Julius Peppers 1-2 30 Active
Khalil Mack 1-5 30 Active
Tony Bennett 1-18 29.5 64.5
Leslie O'Neal 1-8 29 132.5
Brian Orakpo 1-13 28.5 Active
Chris Mims 1-23 28 42
Garin Veris 2-48 28 36
Cameron Wake 28 Active
Greg Townsend 4-110 27.5 109.5
Jason Pierre-Paul 1-15 27.5 Active
John Abraham 1-13 27.5 133.5
Charles Grant 1-25 27.5 47
Jared Allen 4-126 27.5 136
Simeon Rice 1-3 27.5 122
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila 5-149 27 74.5
Reggie Camp 3-68 27 35
Will Smith 1-18 26.5 67.5
Aaron Schobel 2-46 26.5 78
Elvis Dumervil 4-126 26 Active
Kevin Williams 1-9 26 63
Robert Mathis 5-138 25.5 123
Danielle Hunter 3-88 25.5 Active
Jim Jeffcoat 1-23 25.5 102.5
Trent Cole 5-146 25.5 90.5
Jeff Bryant 1-6 25.5 63
Andre Carter 1-7 25.5 80.5
Burt Grossman 1-8 25.5 43.5
Sean Jones 2-51 25 113
Adewale Ogunleye 25 67
Lee Williams 1-6 25 82.5
Willie McGinest 1-4 25 86
Darren Howard 2-33 25 67
Charles Mann 3-84 24.5 83
Vic Beasley 1-8 24.5 Active
Chandler Jones 1-21 23.5 Active
Joey Bosa 1-3 23 Active
Darrell Russell 1-2 23 28.5
Kevin Carter 1-6 23 104.5
Osi Umenyiora 2-56 22.5 85
Leonard Marshall 2-37 22.5 83.5
Frank Clark 2-63 22 Active
John Randle 22 137.5
Hugh Douglas 1-16 22 80
Jumpy Geathers 2-42 21.5 62
Olivier Vernon 3-72 21.5 Active
Keith Hamilton 4-99 21.5 63
Jeff Cross 9-239 21.5 59.5
Cameron Jordan 1-24 21.5 Active

With 17 of the 60 players in that table still active, we’re not able to get a full picture of what the career expectations for a player with that kind of production should look like, since many of those who are still active are in a similar position to Clark. Thus, removing those 17 players, leaves a smaller than desirable sample of 43 players, but that’s enough for me. I’m not going to relist the entire table of data, so here’s a plot of those 43 players with at least 21.5 sacks in their first three seasons against how many sacks they finished their careers.

First of all, let me just point out how insanely good Bruce Smith and Reggie White were. They are the two dots on the far, far, far, far right hand side of the chart. They are simply in a league of their own. However, getting back to Clark, what we see is that players who have put up the type of production Clark has so far can easily be expected to continue to produce with some level of proficiency.

The totals in the career chart appear to bunch up between 60 and 90 career sacks, and a very basic numerical analysis reveals the same. Players who had at least 21.5 sacks during their first three seasons average 89.2 career sacks, but obviously those numbers are pulled a little higher than they should be by the White and Smith outliers. Thus, the median is likely a much better representation of how this group should perform compared to the mean, and in this instance the median is 82.5 sacks.

So, 82.5 sacks seems like a reasonable expectation for a player who already has 22 career sacks and is only 24 years old (Clark will turn 25 in June), as he would only need to average 10 sacks a season through his age 30 season to reach that level. That seems like a level that Clark could easily reach, and it makes it seem as though the mean of 89.2 sacks may not be all that out of reach.

That leads to a simple question: Assuming Clark produces at those levels, where would it put him the annals of history? As of today, 82.5 sacks would rank 60th all time in NFL history, while 89.2 sacks would be good for 47th all time. (Author’s note: Keep in mind that since the NFL only began tracking sacks as an official stat in 1982, those numbers are only representative of players whose careers started in that season.)

That might seem a little high for some people to begin to put Clark into discussions of the top 50 sack leaders in league history, so let’s take a quick look at it from another angle. Since the NFL began keeping track of sacks in 1982, 1,586 defensive linemen who have recorded at least 0.5 sacks, Clark’s 22 sacks puts him in a tie for 422nd place all time. That puts Clark just outside the top quartile of all defensive linemen, having only played three seasons while looking at the entire careers of players like Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.

To level the field a bit, let’s take a look at the production of these players through the first three seasons of their careers. Looking at Clark’s production in that timeframe, his 22 sacks put him in a four way tie with Hugh Douglas, John Randle and Ndamukong Suh in 63rd place. That is out of 1,384 defensive linemen who have recorded a sack during their first three seasons in the NFL. That puts Clark in the top 5% of all defensive linemen in the NFL for sacks during their first three seasons in the NFL, and that is certainly in the territory where the word elite can be tossed around.

In addition, as noted earlier, Clark is extremely young at just 24 years of age. He’ll turn 25 this summer, and more than a handful of the greatest pass rushers in league history had the best seasons of their careers in their late twenties. I’ll dig deeper into this topic at some point this offseason in looking at the potential for Marcus Smith to have a breakout season, but at this point I think it suffices to say that several of the best pass rushers in the NFL in recent decades have had their best seasons in their mid to late twenties. That includes Ezekiel Ansah, LaRoi Glover, Jacob Green, Charles Haley, Neil Smith, Reggie White, DeMarcus Ware, Chandler Jones and Lawrence Taylor.

I’m obviously not trying to say that Clark is going to end up in the Hall of Fame like many of those names, but I certainly appreciate the combination of his youth and the already impressive production amassed. Whether he will remain on the same path and come to dominate the league remains to be seen, but what is certain is that Clark has the potential to be a double digit sack machine for several more seasons, and to end his career with sack totals that put his name next to the elite when discussing their careers.