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Inside Green Bay's Inside Linebacker Position

While the Packers have done quite a bit to improve their defensive front seven heading into the 2019 season, one position of interest is the inside linebacker position.

The position’s mainstay, Blake Martinez, finds himself entering his fourth NFL season, which also means he’s coming into a contract year.

As is the case every other season, the Packers will find themselves in a tough spot when they consider the list of names set to enter free agency in 2020. The list includes veterans like Mike Daniels, Bryan Bulaga, and Mason Crosby who are all productive mainstays for the Packers.

Other names set to hit free agency include fellow 2016 draft picks Kyler Fackrell and Dean Lowry. Just as Martinez has improved each season, Fackrell and Lowry have done the same. It’s unlikely to think all three will be back, so who’s the odd man out?

C.J. Mosley (27-years-old) just earned himself a massive $85 million payday from the New York Jets. He’s arguably the best player in the league at his position, but the price is still incredibly steep.

In the division, Vikings inside linebacker Eric Kendricks (27-years-old) just re-signed for $50 million.

With comparable stats, I would expect the 25-year-old Martinez to look for similar numbers if/when he hits the market, however realistic or unrealistic that may be.

In 14 games in 2018, Kendricks posted two interceptions, seven passes defensed, one forced fumble, and one sack. He also had 108 combined tackles with three tackles for loss and one quarterback hit.

In 16 games that same year, Martinez posted zero interceptions and three passes defensed, but five sacks. He also had 144 combined tackles with 10 tackles for loss and six quarterback hits.

Although Martinez and Kendricks are utilized in different ways, Martinez has continuously gotten better in each of his three seasons. He’s also earned high praise from his quarterback.

“They have a great quarterback of the defense in Blake Martinez,” said Aaron Rodgers. “He really looks comfortable directing the whole thing.”

Martinez came back to Green Bay having added seven pounds of muscle while shedding 3.5% body fat, mentioning that he’s not playing around this year when it comes to his mobility and tackling. He now measures in at 6-2, 237lbs.

While Martinez will lock down the middle of the field this coming season wearing the communication helmet, it’s unclear who will line up beside him.

Second-year player Oren Burks should see the bulk of the snaps, especially with the departure of Jake Ryan to the Jacksonville Jaguars. While Burks saw most of his time on special teams in 2018, he’s slated to serve a much larger role in 2019.

At 6-3, 233lbs, Burks has the speed and agility to pair alongside Martinez. Keep in mind that Burks posted similar measurables to Devin White and Devin Bush, the most desireable inside linebackers in the 2019 Draft Class.

Kyler Fackrell has also been in talks to play a variety of spots on defense. With the additions of Za’Darius and Preston Smith to the outside linebacker rotation, the 6-5, 245lb Fackrell may drop into coverage on occasion.

Whether or not the Packers opt to re-sign Martinez in 2020, here are a few other names to consider at the inside linebacker position:

James Crawford, 6-2, 239lbs

Crawford led the team in special teams tackles this past season. He’s already impressed quite a bit in OTAs, snagging two interceptions. Last summer, he spent time at both outside linebacker and inside linebacker. This year, he’s been able to hone in on one position, and it’s clearly paying off.

Ty Summers, 6-2, 235lbs

Summers hasn’t played a single down in the NFL yet, so expectations are sure to be tempered, but he’s a phenomenal athlete who should immediately bolster special teams in 2019. He ran a speedy 4.51 40-yard dash at the Combine, with great explosion and speed.

Josh Jones, 6-2, 220lbs

I know Jones wants to be traded, but he provides excellent value for the Packers both at safety and at inside linebacker. Jones plays his best when he’s in the box and allowed to be physical. I think his best outing as a Packer came in 2017 against the Cincinnati Bengals. That’s the Jones I’d like to see again in 2019 (and preferably in Green Bay).

Martinez is a young player who I don’t feel has hit his peak yet as a Packer. Giving him a second year in Mike Pettine’s defense with improved talent surrounding him should only improve his personal stats, too.

While Burks, Crawford, Summers, and Jones are all exciting young players to keep an eye on this season, the middle of the field still belongs to Martinez. He’s given us no reason to feel otherwise.

 

Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV and a podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieLawler.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (39) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

I'm a Blake supporter 100%

But if Blake is sniffing anything like 80 mil next offseason I'm not onboard for that. He still just an ILB and they've got limited value in todays NFL.

CAG123's picture

Says who? I don’t get were this narrative comes from the Cowboys, Seahawks, Vikings, Bears, all boast great MLB tandems that help secure the middle of the field. If LBs weren’t that important why did two get drafted so early? One of the reasons the Packers def suffered so much was TT inability to take that position seriously and thought he could just put anyone out there.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

"Says who?"

Says NFL salaries. There are only a handful of Inside Linebackers making over 10 million a year and only one over 15 million.

Non-Edge Linebacker hasn't been franchise tagged since 2011.

dobber's picture

...that Moseley contract, in part, got his GM fired.

greengold's picture

CAG123, you could not be more correct. That whole notion was put out into the media by Ted Thompson. Unbelievable. Add to that, he said such while opposing offenses threw on us over the middle at will, for years.

LambeauPlain's picture

ILB has “limited value in todays NFL”?

Only if 100+ tackles per year has limited value.

Someone should tell you the play is not over until the tackle is made.

Geez!

Coldworld's picture

I’m not signing up for this proposition that Martinez is a Dinosaur. I think Martinez has been a valuable, key player for our D and that he is under appreciated by some here.

That said, I do think the role of the traditional linebacker group is changing, and with it the number of snaps and physical attributes.

While Martinez was staple on all downs last year, would that be the case on third downs if both Summers and Burks turn out to be really capable? I’m not saying that they will, but asking what if. I am not sure. In the old days, a great linebacker corps was nit one but two in the middle, and the greats were the team heroes OLBs are today.

There has actually been quite a lot of comment on this from the media and coaches noting the reduced snaps, need for speed over the thumper and the decline in snaps for conventional ILBS. Here, we are looking at Burks/Greene/Jones as essentially heavy safeties rather than Martinez lookalikes. The position is changing. I’m not sure that isn’t a better description, but it isn’t the premier defensive position it once was.

Interesting discussion in its own right perhaps, but not one as easily answered as you suggest.

greengold's picture

No doubt Coldworld. The traditional ILB was indeed a "thumper" who destroyed the middle with power and size. A tackling machine, more in the Singletary mold.

The NFL has become more of a passing league since, and the role of a top ILB has transformed to a player with size (height), speed, tackling ability, but more importantly coverage skills. I think Brian Urlacher was the one that really became the mold for this new generation of ILBs, as the game changed.

Funny thing, Ray Nitschke was pretty much that same guy. Tough as hell, but was quite adept in coverage.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

Compared to the 70s , 80s and even 90s; absolutely.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

ILB Preston Brown led the league in tackles and was coming years with 144 and 135 tackles, and yet he languished on the free agent market. Tackles aren't everything. Eventually Brown got $5.5M AAV a couple of year ago.

Martinez really improved his coverage, though Pettine might have had a hand in that. That's why I didn't want to extend Martinez - I want to see another year of play out of him.

Coldworld's picture

I’m curious about him having reportedly bulked up. That doesn’t seem to be a move calculated to improve his coverage but rather his ability to shed blocks and get to the ball.

That is one reason why, since I know teams set off season objectives, I am wondering how Pettine wants to use Martinez and the ILB position as a whole this year.

Tundraboy's picture

"Giving him a second year in Mike Pettine’s defense with improved talent surrounding him should only improve his personal stats, too."

Yup. One those players that you don't really ever wonder that he cares and puts his all into a game.

GBPDAN1's picture

We are relatively set at most positions on this roster. However, ILB should be a priority in next year's draft. I'd also would like to see another elite WR drafted no later than rd2, unless 2 of our young guys make the big leap. Another TE, too. Graham and Lewis will be gone next year

The D has been the priority , but now It's time to get Rodgers multiple playmakers, like he had in 2011. We were unstoppable then.

Coldworld's picture

Let’s see what Pettine does with the ILBs this year. Could look different I think.

What we do with Martinez and or additional draftees or FAs will depend on how they are to be used and fit as well as development by the likes of Burks, Summers, Crawford as well as the cover candidates including Greene and Jones, if the latter is willing to compete.

LambeauPlain's picture

I just love Martinez and his dedication. He needs to be re-signed and I think he will give a home team discount.

But he deserves a good payday. He has earned it by improving every year and still has upside to his production.

I cannot wait to see how he plays with the front of Kenny, Mike, Dean, Mr and Mr Smith, Fack, and The Rookie playing in front of him.

I hope Burks steps up and Crawford is a player. But watch for Summers play in camp. Very intriguing prospect.

Finally....ML should call Josh Jones to get back to GB to play ILB EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Forget safety...you have a chance to start at ILB so let’s go!

Hawg Hanner's picture

I have always thought Martinez was a second level talent and was playing as much as he was only because we could not afford to draft ILB talent in recent drafts. Seems okay against the run but pass protection is deficient. Don't think this is a guy you can want or afford to bring back on a second contract. Gives you effort but is limited physically

Lare's picture

GMs are always thinking 2-3 years out. If Martinez wants way too much money Gutekunst will replace him internally, in FA or the draft.

stockholder's picture

I don't see anybody on your list coming back. The defense is a revolving door. The Money has to go to Clark. And lets not forget Daniels, Bulaga, and T. Williams, wanting one last payday. It just won't happen.

Coldworld's picture

Daniels likely won’t get a large payday from the Pack again. Bulaga will likely have peaked in this contract. T. Williams is likely to retire after this season.

I personally think Daniels will have a great year this year, but the team has taken steps that suggest that they think they will need to move on from him. I think he will get big money from someone. If that’s the case, Martinez would be a more likely candidate for a new contract.

stockholder's picture

Martinez is the better Candidate. The ILB position is now one of speed. His wheels will hold the packers back. Martinez must show he can still fly and not miss. 16 games are a lot. Ryan didn't stay. Martinez won't either. The packers will not over-pay the ILB position.

Coldworld's picture

Or other value. That’s why I said that I am curious to see how he is used this year. His role may expand in some ways and contract in others now Pettine has a varied arsenal of options.

Bearmeat's picture

"The list includes veterans like Mike Daniels, Bryan Bulaga, and Mason Crosby ..... Kyler Fackrell and Dean Lowry.... so who’s the odd man out?" I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that all five of those players will not be Packers as of March 2020. They're either replacement level players, or perhaps slightly above replacement level. Or they're old and expensive.

As for Martinez? I don't think he's worth what Kendricks makes, and the Jests waaaay overpaid for an ILB (who is admittedly very good at what he does). If Martinez stays true to his "Steady-Eddy" MO this year, I'd be happy to have him back, but only at a bargain. ILB is like OG. You can get by with "pretty ok" as long as you have elite players at the more important positions (OT/OLB/CB etc)...

jeremyjjbrown's picture

If Martinez puts in a really good year I'd offer him 3 years 18 million. Which sounds very low. But that is top 15 (Non-Edge) LB money.

Samson's picture

Actually, you may be correct about the "list".... The Pack will be going into the off season 2020 & the cap will have a much more pertinent impact on who stays & who goes... As much as I like the play of Martinez & his approach, he reminds me too much of that other LB named AJ Something or another...whatever it was.

IceBowl's picture

You guys do know that Martinez is elite.

If you want to dump on Gary and say he is not worth his high pick (which many of you did) because he did not have top stats, you have to give Martinez props for his production. Stats say he is elite.

After him, the position has nothing but questions. But we have the best possible answers we have had in years.

greengold's picture

Thanks, IceBowl for saying that.

Blake Martinez will light it up this year. I have zero doubts about that. He will become a mainstay at ILB for us for years. He is young, has size and possibly more speed with his reduced body fat coming into 2019. Add to that, his 2nd year in Pettine's system. He's insanely intelligent and motivated, and a top performer. PFF has him listed as the highest rated ILB with 19 stops on pass plays, which is the most for all linebackers this past season. A true QB of our Defense.

A lot of people don't realize how much his coverage has improved. Blake finished the 2018 season with Green Bay's Best Coverage Grade of 82.6, which is a +35.0 improvement from 2017 (0.81 yds per snap in 2018, and a 0.35 yards per snap improvement). As a comparison, Jaire Alexander's coverage grade from 2018 was 73.0 (which ranked 5th amongst all CBs in the NFL).

Martinez is also graded as the Top Linebacker in their Overall Grade for the NFC North with 74.8, followed by Danny Trevathan 72.0, Anthony Barr 71.4, Christian Jones 65.3 and Roquan Smith 65.0.

Lphill's picture

I think Devin Bush was still there at 12 that would have solidified the middle, I don’t think Burks is going to cut it , maybe Ty Summers will develop , the bottom line is the Packers are thin inside , I would not break the bank for Martinez can maybe sign a vet next season and draft an inside backer . If the guys up front do well that takes the pressure off everyone else , and I think they will do good

dobber's picture

Bush went #10 to Pittsburgh.

Samson's picture

This is like deja vu all over again.... This all sounds like the AJ Hawk discussion that went on for years.

draftnut59's picture

.We’ve needed to shore up the middle of the defense for years. With Clark on the line and Amos and Savage in the backfield, the pieces are in place on the front and the back end. Martinez really solidifies what we do on the second level.

Martinez has led the team in tackles for years. It’s hard to imagine the defense being as good without him.

Nice article, Maggie.

IceBowl's picture

draftnut59,

Good take. The Pack has doubled down on D this year, and it is better from top to bottom. There is talent in all positions, and talent will have to be cut too.

I expect the coaches will identify, and train, those that buy in. But we have more physical talent than in recent years.

greengold's picture

Martinez tied for 1st in the entire NFL in tackles in 2017 with 144.

He matched that 144 total in 2018, ranking 2nd in the NFL behind Darius Leonard, who had 163. Leonard was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018.

Blake's 286 Combined Tackles were the most in the NFL since 2017.

Martinez also had the 3rd highest Sacks total on the Packers in 2018 with 5, behind Fackrell with 10.5 and Clark with 6.

Really, he's had a lot more time to digest Pettine's scheme, and he is a tackling machine. Martinez said last year his individual goal is to break the All-Time Single Season Tackles Record of 195. He loves Pettine's scheme, and I would not be surprised if he surpassed all of his previous stats this season.

PatrickGB's picture

Maggie. So, now you write about something else that I have no control over and get to worry about ;-)
I hope we can find a way to keep him but understand if we don’t. Boy, I am sure glad I am not a GM. I might just want to resign everyone regardless of the cap. Yet, Blake led the team in tackles but unlike AJ, many of them were close to the LOS.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Oren Burks was dreadful in his 122 snaps. I'd like to see what he looks like before making decisions on Martinez.

Even if Burks comes through, GB still needs a third ILB. That can be a good-looking UDFA while we have Martinez and Burks, but something probably will have to be done to shore up ILB in 2020.

Coldworld's picture

I don’t see Burks as a potential replacement for Martinez as his role has been to date. Summers and Crawford seem better suited in terms of size and background in the case of Summers (Crawford is relatively new inside having played safety then outside/DE).

Burks is a candidate for a more cover backer role based upon his safety background and use in college. Behind him would be the likes of Jones, Greene (at least in OTAs), smaller faster with a pass coverage background rather than a run focus. The ILB one and two roles seem to be diverging from what I see in terms of roster additions and subtractions.

fthisJack's picture

Crawford might be a guy to keep an eye on. he was really good on ST and has been praised for his work in OTA's.

Rudedawg67's picture

If Martinez is leading the team in tackles over the last few years to some extent it is because the guys upfront are doing their jobs and occupying blockers. Then question becomes where is he making his tackles. Is it 2 yards from the line of scrimmage or is it 5 yards. When you determine that part of the equation then you get a better picture of what he is worth. At 6’2, 237lbs and a 4.71 40 time he definitely over achieves but there are players on this team now that are bigger, faster, and stronger that could potentially play that position if given a chance. Coaching is what they need and that is why Martinez is good because he was coached well at Stanford.

greengold's picture

For those looking for a match next to Martinez, not to worry. Check out a Blake Martinez podcast at the Athletic, and listen to him talk about Oren Burks, and both of their development together in Pettine's scheme. It is well worth the listen. Very enlightening.

Add to that Ty Summers, who is essentially a Blake clone, but even more athletic, and Reggie Gilbert making a lot of camp noise and INTs.... not to worry. ILB might be one of the deepest positions on our team.

Branden Burke's picture

Here is what I would do....

I would play Gary at one of the middle linebacker positions about a yard off of the line of scrimmage, and I would make the position essentially an every down rushing position with a couple of exceptions just to keep the blocking assignments tied up.

We have seen what petine has done by using the nickel defense with two inside linebackers lined up on the shoulders of the center on his money downs, which creates a free man on the edge usually as they have to get accounted for since they are closest to the QB, even though most of the time they drop one or two of the guys back.

With Gary at an inside linebacker position, you put him in the best position for him to succeed as a pass rusher, while being able to have him move around the guard/center/guard box and screw with the blocking assignments. With his speed, size, and weight, an extra yard to gain momentum would give his bull rush (pretty much his only pass rush move at the moment) some extra power. The line would probably identify him as the Mike, and his ability to move around in that guard/center/guard box will force blocking assignment errors. Not only that, but he will be accounted for as a rusher by the line almost every play. Meaning you can drop him to a shallow zone rarely for crossing routes and bring pressure on the edges, creating more free rushers as the guard/center responsible for blocking him will have a hard time either passing a guy over or coming around to pick up the speed on the edge.

It also makes it so you can take either of the Smith's and put them in coverage on any play, making it so you have 4 guys rushing on a play, while still creating schematic pressure against a five man line. It would essentially force an overload rushing situation whenever you would want to create one. They would have to keep a TE or RB back to confirm what side is going to have the heavy pass rush.

I think that's the next phase for a defense to morph to. Being able to use a rush middle linebacker to be able to force an offenses blocking assignments to create mismatches. That's what they do with the press nickel, but it can be done every play.

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