Throughout his four years with the Green Bay Packers, Blake Martinez was the consummate team-first guy. He toed the party line on any topic even remotely controversial, never publicly questioned the coaching staff or the defensive scheme, never bellyached about his role and never created the kind of drama that can be part-and-parcel with a lot of players around the NFL.
So when the ex-Packers inside linebacker spoke on a conference call late last month to discuss his new three-year, $30 million contract with the New York Giants, it was mildly surprising to hear him lay bare what probably shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone who’s watched the Packers defense over the past decade or so: The inside linebacker position isn’t exactly a high-priority, glamour gig.
Rather, he calmly explained what his responsibilities were under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and how the scheme was designed to accentuate the skills of certain players like outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith or nose tackle Kenny Clark, with the inside linebackers tasked with playing off those stars and adjusting to what they do.
“I think the way they value the inside linebacker position especially in that defense, it wasn’t as valued as other places, in my opinion,” Martinez said of the Packers. “The way we ran the defense, at least the last two years, is I’m kind of put into the clean-up crew guy (role). There’s a lot of situations where you see numerous other defenses where it’s like, ‘OK, you have A-B gap responsibility as an inside linebacker, you have one gap responsibility.’
“In our defense no matter what it was, since I was the only (true) linebacker on the field, I was taught and told once again, to be the clean-up crew guy. There wasn’t any gap responsibilities for me. It was just kind of, ‘Hey, play off Kenny (Clark), play off Za’Darius (Smith), play off Preston (Smith), play off Dean (Lowry)’ — play off these guys and basically make them right.
“They were able to do whatever they wanted to do and then I would go make the plays depending on that. I know there’s been things (said) like, ‘You make tackles down the field, you make tackles here, you make tackles there.’ For the majority of the time there, that’s what I was told to do. It’s just me doing my job in that sense.”
For that reason, it seems unlikely — but certainly not out of the question — that Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst will invest a premium pick like the team’s first-round selection (No. 30 overall) in an inside linebacker, especially considering the track record of his predecessor, Ted Thompson.
Yes, Thompson did draft Ohio State’s A.J. Hawk with the fifth overall pick in 2006, but at the time, the Packers were running a 4-3 scheme and Hawk was a will linebacker in then-defensive coordinator Bob Sanders’ system. Both for Dom Capers’ 3-4 system and Pettine’s sub package-heavy hybrid 3-4, the Packers have been generally content to man the inside linebacker spots with mid- to late-round draft picks.
Among those players who started games at inside linebacker are Desmond Bishop (sixth round, 2007); Brad Jones (seventh round, 2009); D.J. Smith (sixth round, 2011); Sam Barrington (seventh round, 2013); Nate Palmer (sixth round, 2013); Jake Ryan (fourth round, 2015) and Martinez (fourth round, 2016).
The highest pick Thompson or Gutekunst has spent on an inside linebacker since 2009 was Gutekunst’s selection of Oren Burks in the third round in 2018, Gutekunst’s first draft as GM. Dogged by injuries, Burks has yet to make an impact as he enters his third NFL season.
In advance of Martinez’s departure, the Packers signed ex-Cleveland Browns inside linebacker Christian Kirksey to a two-year, $13 million deal that could be worth up to $16 million if he hits all his incentives. The other spot figures to go to Burks or Ty Summers, a seventh-round pick a year ago, unless Gutekunst invests a Day 1 or Day 2 pick on the position.
Gutekunst is slated to speak with the media via conference call for his annual pre-draft press availability on Monday afternoon, but earlier in the offseason Gutekunst didn’t give the impression that he was feeling any urgency about the position.
“The inside linebacker thing,” Gutekunst acknowledged, “is something we’re going to have to see how we’re going to do that."