EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Blake Martinez played basketball when he was a youngster growing up in Arizona.
"I fouled out every five minutes of every game," Martinez said. "So, that didn't work out too well for me. I had to stick with football."
It was a good decision for Martinez and now for the Giants, who last week signed the middle linebacker as a free agent. Martinez averaged almost nine tackles a game in four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, a total of 520 (351 solo). He is frequently called a "tackling machine." The Giants plan to line up Martinez in the middle of their defense and let him do his thing. And he couldn't be happier.
"I love making plays," Martinez said today. "I love, obviously, hitting people. That's kind of the thing that got me into football. I can just have that aggressive, physical nature and, obviously, you don't get in trouble for. You don't get grounded. Growing up, I was kind of like, 'Oh yeah, this is my game.'"
He has excelled playing it for years. In four years at Stanford, including two as a fulltime starter, he totaled 251 tackles and led the Cardinal to three Pac-12 titles and four bowl berths. He started every game for the Packers the last three years, when his tackle totals were 156, 147 and 155. Green Bay played in the NFC Championship Game in two of his four seasons.
"Playing as the middle linebacker, the way I look at it is you have to make the plays," said Martinez, a 6-2, 237-pounder. "You have to be the cleanup guy. You have to be the guy that doesn't allow those big plays to happen. If one guy kind of slips his gap, doesn't do what he's supposed to do on a given play, you have to be the guy that kind of minimizes that mistake and allows your guys to get to that next down. I think that's one of the things that I pride myself on and has allowed me to make a lot of plays like that."
Now he will bring his tackling acumen to the Giants, a team that excites him for several reasons. There's head coach Joe Judge and the roster, "One of the main appealing things was it's a young team, a lot of talent across the board," Martinez said.
Perhaps most stimulating is the presence of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, who was Martinez's position coach with the Packers in 2018.
"He's probably one of the smartest coaches I've ever been around," Martinez said. "Just his ability to get you ready within four to five days. Every single week my third year when he was my inside linebacker coach, I went into the games on Sunday feeling like I knew exactly what plays were going to happen and exactly what I had to do within our scheme. It just made each game so easy to play. That was the biggest thing I got from him throughout that year and got me so excited to be able to work with him again, obviously, coming up again this season."
Martinez and Graham will be joined at the hip. In Green Bay, he had a green dot affixed to his helmet, signaling he received the play calls from the defensive coordinator and relayed them to the players in the huddle. Martinez is likely to be that player with the Giants.
"I love having the green dot," Martinez said. "It's always been an awesome aspect that I've (been) able to have since my rookie year. I've grown more and more, and just understanding the things that I need to do within the huddle, out of the huddle, pre-snap, all those things that have just been growing throughout the years. I know Pat's extremely open and free with communication that he's going to allow me to do within a given series, within a given game. It's exciting for me to be able to have that freedom. I can't wait to be able to go out there and obviously, lead the Giants defense."
Martinez isn't the only former Packers linebacker to join this Giants this month. Outside backer Kyler Fackrell, another member of the 2016 draft class, is also coming to New Jersey (all signings of free agents from other teams are contingent upon players passing physicals when travel restrictions are lifted).
Fackrell's sack total dropped from 10.5 in 2018 to 1.0 last season, but Martinez said that was primarily due to the arrival of free agents Preston and Za'Darius Smith, who totaled 25.5 sacks.
"I reached out to him and was like, 'Oh awesome, we're going to be teammates together,'" said Martinez, who agreed to terms with the Giants a day before Fackrell. "And he was super pumped and excited. He's obviously an amazing player. I think he's one of the best coverage outside linebackers, zone-droppers, all those types of things. He's able to do a lot of things. I think a lot of people haven't been able to see him rush as much as he should have been. Obviously, we had Za'Darius and Preston Smith last year. But Fackrell is an amazing rusher. Obviously, he had that 10-sack season the year before. He's really good, and I think a lot of people will be surprised with what he does this year."
Martinez also had a career-high sack total in 2018, with 5.0. He had 3.0 last season but would relish the opportunity to more frequently chase quarterbacks.
"I love it," Martinez said. "That's one of my favorite things. I think in 2018, that was probably the greatest time ever. I love blitzing. I think I had five sacks that year. It's just one of the things that I want to be able to do more of. Obviously, last year, which makes total sense, the Packers spent a lot of money on (the Smiths) and you obviously saw what they did. So obviously, everyone else kind of lowered their load of blitzing when they can rush four and do those types of things against quarterbacks. But that's definitely something that I want to kind of keep growing in my game and have more of. I'm excited to see what Pat Graham puts together for that."
Martinez is touring the country thanks to football. He was raised in Arizona, attended college in northern California and played his first four pro seasons in the upper Midwest in the NFL's smallest market. His new journey takes him to the Northeast and the nation's largest metropolitan area.
"That's what I tell my wife (Kristie), that that's how we get our vacation time," Martinez said. "I just go to different locations across the country. But I'm extremely excited, my wife is extremely excited. As you know, in Green Bay, there's not much to do out there. So, it's going to be an exciting moment for us to be able to go to different places than the same restaurants, the same movie theater, seeing the same movie for the sixth time. So, now we can go to different restaurants, we can go to shows. It's going to be exciting."
On and off the field.
View photos of linebacker Blake Martinez.