GREEN BAY, Wis. – Of the Green Bay Packers’ 15 unrestricted free agents, the future of three is especially fascinating. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga had an excellent season but has a lengthy injury history. Inside linebacker Blake Martinez is a tackling machine with limitations. Kicker Mason Crosby will turn 36 just before the start of next season.
We examine their futures in this three-part series, which led off with Bulaga, continued with Crosby and concludes with Martinez. General manager Brian Gutekunst offered ringing endorsements for Bulaga and Crosby but not Martinez.
“Blake Martinez is up and I think we’re going to have to take a long look at the inside linebacker thing, make sure we’re squared away there,” he said.
Resume: After leading the NFL in tackles in 2017 and ranking second in 2008, Martinez finished second in the league with a career-high 155 tackles. He did it while playing the second half of the season with a broken hand. He added three sacks, five tackles for losses, one forced fumble and a key interception in the come-from-behind win at Detroit. Over the last four seasons, Martinez’s 512 tackles trails only Bobby Wagner’s 597.
Sign him: In the 2016 draft class, Martinez has 103 more tackles than anyone else. For some reason, it’s chic for Martinez’s critics to scoff at statistics like that one. Someone’s got to make the tackle, right?
Too many tackles are made too far down the field, you say? Pro Football Focus has a stat called run-stop percentage. Essentially, it measures impact tackles. For instance, a first-and-10 tackle that limits the play to 3 yards or less is a “stop.” Among the 60 off-the-ball linebackers to play 50 percent of the run snaps, Martinez ranked fourth with 37 run stops, just behind Luke Kuechly (38) and Bobby Wagner (39). He was 15th in run-stop percentage, tied with Dallas star Jaylon Smith, ahead of touted top-10 draft picks Devin Bush and Devin White, and ahead of former Vikings All-Pro Anthony Barr. In the passing game, of 47 off-the-ball linebackers to play 50 percent of the passing snaps, he ranked 16th in snaps per reception, according to PFF. He missed 16 tackles, a number that seems high but put him 19th in tackling efficiency among the 58 off-the-ball linebackers who played 50 percent of the snaps overall.
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With those numbers, it would be anything but a surprise if Martinez signed a big contract – though it’s impossible to believe the contract will be this big. It will be fascinating to see how he’s viewed around the league. If he lingers on the market, could he come back to fill a lesser role?
“My tape will speak for itself,” he said on Monday. “I did a lot of great things individually, made a lot of tackles, made a lot of plays. Was kind of the general of the defense – called the plays, made a lot of checks, did everything necessary to help the team. Whatever ends up happening for me will end up happening.”
Let him go: On Raheem Mostert’s 9-yard touchdown run in the NFC Championship Game, Martinez was unblocked and had a path to drop Mostert at the line of scrimmage. Instead, Mostert beat him to the corner and scored. If you needed one play as Exhibit A in why the Packers need more athleticism at linebackers, this would be it.
“Yeah, no doubt,” was Gutekunst’s succinct answer when asked if the priority at linebacker is speed.
Another way to measure impact tackles is “stuffs.” A “stuff” is a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. run. Martinez had 10 stuffs, including just two solo stuffs. The league leads were 20 stuffs and 12 solo stuffs.
With experience should come more impact plays in the passing game. So, compare the productivity of Martinez, who was picked toward the end of the fourth round in 2016, and Wisconsin’s Joe Schobert, who was picked toward the start of the fourth round in 2016 by the Browns. In their last two seasons, Martinez had one interception and five passes defensed while Schobert had five interceptions and 15 passes defensed.
The quote: “It’s been a tough year from that aspect, of understanding it could be my last one with the Packers. I put a lot into this year, whether it was the offseason, OTAs, fall camp – everything. It was a great group of guys to be a part of. It was a special year to me. I’ll look back at this as one of the most fun years I’ve had on a football team, and then the uncertainty of what’s going to happen next.”