By: Mark Prott
One visit to the twitter page of Blake Martinez @Big_Blake4 is all it takes to realize this is not your average NFL linebacker coming into the league. Sure, standing at 6’2 and weighing 240 pounds, Martinez looks the part of a thumping inside linebacker. But what really might separate Martinez from the rest of his draft class at inside linebacker, and for that matter anyone in his positional group on the current Packers roster, is his mind. His Twitter bio proudly displays his new degree in Management Science Engineering from Stanford University. And yes, the instinctual advanced mind Martinez possesses in the classroom also translates to the gridiron.
Turn on the second half video of his 2015 game at Oregon State and you see a player flashing off the screen, deflecting passes in coverage, shedding blockers, finding the ball, and punishing ball carriers. Exactly the all around, nose for the ball linebacker the Packers have been seemingly chasing for years now.
Every Packer fan in tune with team needs has known the team has had a real need for the inside linebacker position since at least the 2014 draft, when many of us were amateur scouting YouTube highlights from the likes of Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley. Of course, both those players were picked ahead of the Packers eventual pick of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Not that I’m complaining, as Clinton-Dix seems destined to become one of the top safeties in the game, as soon as the 2016 season.
The 2015 draft also contained Eric Kendricks, the UCLA coverage linebacker nabbed by the Vikings in the 2nd round. He was another linebacker I loved for his coverage ability and he enjoyed a solid rookie season with the hated Vikings to make it even worse. But then again, it is hard to argue with Ted Thompson’s top two selections of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, both of whom flashed big time starter potential in their rookie campaigns.
Although with a seemingly delayed sense of urgency, the Packers began fortifying the inside linebacker position last year with the selection of Jake Ryan in the 4th round. Although Ryan started slow, he steadily improved as he got more playing time throughout the year, showing a knack for run stuffing and finding the ball. The eye test says he’s starter worthy.
But what’s missing? How about putting a linebacker on the field who doesn’t get completely embarrassed by Eagles running back Darren Sproles in the flat? Watch the 0.44-0.48 or the 2:18-2:27 second marked plays here. Painful and cringe-worthy to say the least. The Packers have voiced multiple times their intent and desire to get Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker in the 2016 season. Rightfully so, as Clay still possesses the most pass rush ability in the front seven and he needs more pass rush attempts than he received the past two years. Moving Clay inside was a band-aid for the defense that worked for awhile but the experiment is over.
To take the next step and make the Green Bay Packers defense Super Bowl worthy again, the Packers need their best pass rusher doing exactly that, rushing the passer. They also need a new man in charge, controlling the middle of the field with smarts, coverage ability, toughness, and instincts. Which brings us back to Blake Martinez, the possible missing piece to the puzzle. Yes, he was only a 4th round pick and his official 40 time of 4.71 at the combine wasn’t blazing. However, there’s too many positives about this player to ignore.
Pro Football Focus graded Martinez as the number one linebacker from the 2016 NFL draft in coverage ability. He racked up over 100 tackles each of the past two years as the leader and heart and soul of the Stanford Cardinal defense. And then there’s the study habits, diligent film watching, and quick grasp of the defense displayed at OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and overall positive impression Martinez has already made on his teammates and coaches so early in the learning process. Coach Mike McCarthy summed up the progress best in an article by Ryan Wood from USA TODAY:
“He looks very comfortable,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s done a really nice job transitioning from the base defense to the sub defense, his command, the echoing of the calls. He’s very bright. Quick. And he definitely is a very instinctive player. He’s off to a very good start.”
Obviously more questions will be answered in training camp when the pads come on and the games begin. But the guess here is Blake Martinez will emerge as an every down starting inside linebacker and the Packers may have finally found the missing long term piece that can help propel the defense and the team back to greatness starting in the 2016 season.