After releasing inside linebacker Alec Ogletree at the end of February, the Giants were in need of a replacement who could not only play his position, but also be a leader of the defense. They filled that need by signing Blake Martinez, a four-year starter for the Green Bay Packers who wore the communication helmet and relayed the defensive calls from the coaching staff.
Martinez was originally a fourth round pick of the Packers (131st overall) in the 2016 draft. He is entering his fifth season and the prime seasons of his career. A three-down inside off-ball linebacker, he played the ninth-most snaps of any such linebacker in 2019 (1,024 snaps), the fifth-most in 2018 (1,050 snaps) and the 13th-most in his second season in 2017 (978). He was often the only off-ball linebacker on the field for the Packers in passing situations.
Martinez played in all 48 regular season games the past three seasons and started in both Packers' playoff games last season. He played through a fractured hand last season and has proven to be durable.
Martinez is a tackling machine, landing in the top seven in solo tackles each of the last three seasons, and the top three in combined tackles. He tied for the league lead in solo tackles in 2017.
Pro Football Focus tracks tackling efficiency, a number that represents the number of attempted tackles per miss. He was 22nd of 58 linebackers who played over 500 snaps in 2019, despite playing with a fractured hand for part of the season. If you average out the last three seasons, he was 27th in the league in tackling efficiency, which puts him in the top half of the league.
His tape from 2018 and 2019 shows Martinez is a sound tackler. He knows how to find his way to the ball due to his football intelligence, preparation and instincts, whether it is in the run or pass game.
What jumps out watching Martinez's tape is his ability to quickly diagnose what the offense is trying to do. He only ran a 4.71 40 yard dash at the combine but his football intelligence allows him to make up for his lack of top-end speed. His impressive 6.98 three-cone drill shows his agility and explains why he is impressive in small space around the ball in the middle of the field.
This was an interesting excerpt from Pro Football Focus' analysis of Martinez' play so far in his career.
"After multiple years of strong grading at Stanford and now multiple seasons in the NFL, as well, Blake Martinez has shown all the qualities necessary to be a superstar linebacker and complete player - he's just never shown all the qualities at the same time. He has earned top-level grades in all facets of the game but hasn't been able to put them all together in the same season…"
In 2017, PFF graded Martinez's run defense as his best asset. In 2018, it was his coverage, where his grade was eighth-best among inside linebackers. It was nearly identical to Cory Littleton, and better than big names like Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Darius Leonard. In 2019, his pass rush was his highest graded attribute. He had different deficiencies in each of those seasons, too.
2018 is an interesting season to explore, given Martinez was coached by current Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who was the Packers linebacker coach and defensive run game coordinator that season. Martinez was used more as a pass rusher that season than in any season of his career, and did his best work in coverage.
When you watch Martinez the last two seasons, he is not often asked to cover running backs and tight ends running down the field in man on man coverage. There aren't many plays where you see the ball soaring over his head resulting in big plays. He is often used as a zone player in the middle of the field, where he is tasked with reading the quarterback and keeping plays in front of him, where he excelled in 2018.
During this play against the Bears from Week One of the 2018 season, Martinez drops into zone coverage, and reads where Mitch Trubisky is looking to go with the football. He slides toward where Trubisky's vision brings him and positions himself underneath the wide receiver the quarterback is targeting. Martinez just misses an interception while forcing an incompletion.
The next play is my favorite from the Martinez tape I watched. It looks as though he has zone responsibility in the deep middle of the field in a cover-two defense. Adam Thielin is lined up in the slot and shoots down the field between the hashes. Martinez recognizes him and stays over the top in tight coverage. When Kirk Cousins realizes his first option isn't open, he steps up in the pocket and rolls slightly to his right. Martinez watches Cousins and leaves Thielin to dive in front of Stefon Diggs to knock the pass away.
The third play starts with a fake blitz against Matthew Stafford and the Lions in Week 17 of the 2018 season. Martinez fakes coming up the middle and then drops into coverage. He sees Stafford is looking to get the ball out quickly, and gets into the passing lane to knock the ball away. It is another case of reading the offense and anticipating where the ball is going.
The next play shows Martinez's ability to read and react to a screen pass against the Redskins. It looks like he has man coverage responsibility against the running back. He anticipates the screen long before it develops based off player movement, probably due to his film study, and breaks up the pass with a big hit on the running back as the ball arrives.
Martinez was used 84 times as a blitzer in 2018. He had five sacks that season, and PFF credited him with 15 hurries. He is willing to use his power to go through running backs, but this play shows him using his quickness to get around veteran Rams center John Sullivan through the A-gap for a sack on Jared Goff.
On run defense, Martinez excels on plays that don't get outside the numbers. On this run off-tackle, he uses his hands to evade a cut-block by the 49ers center, flows through traffic and fills the hole to make the play.
The final play shows his ability to quickly diagnose and get downhill. After directing traffic pre-snap to account for the player who went in motion, he reads the running back and fullback at the snap. He flows quickly to the hole, too fast for a 49ers offensive lineman to get to the second level to block him, and makes the play.
It will be interesting to see how Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham decides to deploy Martinez and how his experience coaching him in 2018 impacts that thinking. If he can be as effective for the Giants in 2020 as he was for Green Bay in 2018, especially in coverage and as a pass rusher, he will be an enormously impactful player.