Back in 1975, when the NFL Draft was 17 rounds, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson was an undrafted inside linebacker out of Southern Methodist who wound up starting for three years with the Houston Oilers.
So maybe taking Stanford inside linebacker Blake Martinez in the fourth round – the same round in which he took Michigan inside linebacker Jake Ryan a year ago – should be considered a high draft pick. Maybe it all depends on perspective.
But given the players Thompson has passed on over the past two drafts, from Clemson’s Stephen Anthony and UCLA’s Eric Kendrick’s last year to Alabama’s Reggie Ragland, USC’s Su’a Cravens and LSU’s Deion Jones this year, you could argue that he simply doesn’t put a great deal of value in the position.
The past year-and-a-half, he’s had the luxury of playing Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews on the inside, but with a commitment to move Matthews back to the outside, it’s about to be seen if the caliber of players the team has accumulated in the middle and late rounds is up to snuff in a changing NFL landscape that requires run-stuffing and coverage from the inside linebacker position. As for Martinez, the 131st overall pick, director of football operations Eliot Wolf seems confident that he has exactly the skill-set required.
“I kind of like everything about him,” Wolf said. “He’s athletic, he’s productive, he played big-time football at Stanford. He can cover, he can blitz, he can sift over the top and make tackles on the outside. I thought he was a pretty versatile guy.
“They run a 3-4 (scheme) out there. It's multiple, but they do run a 3-4. It's nice to see a guy that can line up in multiple spots like Blake did and cover and play the run and do all those things. He didn't come off the field for those guys.”
The 6-foot-2, 237-pound Martinez led not only the Cardinal but the entire Pac-12 with 141 tackles. He added 1.5 sacks and six pass breakups in a 2015 season that saw him named to the Associated Press’ All-America third team. He credits his success – as any Stanford student might – to excellent study habits, attention to details, meticulous note-taking and good mentors.
“I go back to kind of just film study,” Martinez said. “I pride myself on note-taking. I have a notebook that I’m pretty sure I still have, my mom probably put it in her scrapbook or whatever. But it’s 12 pages on each team we played this last season and just going through it each day. On Mondays, we have first- and second-down cutups and I’ll go through, ‘OK, this is what they run on this down and distance on first down.’ Doing those types of things where when I step on that field, I’m able to say, ‘OK, first-and-10 right here, we have “trips,” this is what they run, a zone read or some type or form of pass play.’ So if I see run, I know the type of play that’s going to be run and I go and make the play.
“I picked it up when I first got to Stanford. In high school, we didn’t really watch tape too much, just kind of like, in high school, I was a see-ball, get-ball kind of thing. And once I got to college, I learned from a lot of great players like A.J. Tarpley, Jordan Richards, Trent Murphy, all those great players just in our defensive meeting rooms, seeing what they did, and just kind of kept building on my type of film study and play style from them.”
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Martinez was among the top performers in his position group with 22 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press, 6.98 seconds in the three-cone drill and 4.20 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle. The shuttle is arguably the most important measuring stick for an inside linebacker, since it measures change-of-direction agility. His time tied him for third-best with Ohio State’s Darron Lee, who went No. 20 to the Jets, and beat Ragland, who went No. 41 to the Bills. In fact, that 4.20 was tied for the third-fastest at the Combine.
While those numbers indicate his ability to win in small spaces, his 4.71 40-yard dash time at the Combine – lowered to 4.62 at his pro day – is cause for at least some concern if the expectation is that he will cover a running back or tight end. Wolf, however, remains convinced Martinez is up to the challenge, calling him a “four-down” linebacker – meaning running downs, passing downs and special teams.
“He played in space a lot at Stanford,” Wolf said. “They like to throw out in the Pac-12 so that's something he's used to.
“We always like to add good players. I don't think it was as big of a need as some members of the media like to say it is. We did have a Pro Bowl inside linebacker last year that everyone seems to forget about. Adding a good player is always good. Clay prefers to play outside. I don't think that's a big secret. So any time we can add someone inside that helps facilitate that, it's a good thing.”
Within minutes of his selection, Martinez was pictured on Instagram with his family sporting Packers gear. He admitted that his dad went out and bought a hat and T-shirt for every NFL team, just so he’d be ready. His mom, however, had a feeling about Green Bay.
“I’ve been in touch with a lot of teams that need inside linebackers. For the Packers, I talked to them at the Senior Bowl, I talked to them at the Combine and those types of things. But, overall, didn’t talk to them much. My mom was always telling me throughout the process, ‘I believe you’re going to end up at the Packers.’ And obviously it was just a lucky guess type of thing, but it’s just funny. My mom said right after, ‘Moms are always right.’ I’ll take it.”
Green Bay will take it, too, with the hope that Martinez’s success at Stanford transfers over to the next level. His ability to be a difference maker on third-down could go a long way in determining how much he and Matthews end up playing at inside linebacker.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org