GREEN BAY - After three rounds came and went during the 2016 NFL draft, the Green Bay Packers finally addressed a tissue-like thinness at inside linebacker. General manager Ted Thompson, flush with compensatory picks, tabbed Blake Martinez of Stanford as the player who, he hoped, would assuage uncertainty after Clay Matthews’ positional relocation.
Within minutes of the pick, director of football operations Eliot Wolf arrived at the podium inside Lambeau Field. And of Martinez he spoke effusively.
“I like everything about him,” Wolf said. “Athletic. Productive. Played big-time football. He can cover, he can blitz. Makes tackles on the outside. He can bend. He can change directions. I don't see coverage as an issue at all.”
The months that followed could be described as the Summer of Martinez, a localized phenomenon spawned by a confluence of factors: his bookworm attitude that impressed coaches and Aaron Rodgers alike; his insertion into the first-team defense with Sam Barrington’s foot not yet healed; his outlandish (but true) stories about refusing to eat sweets and traveling to a video game tournament on the West Coast — as a fan.
Martinez's dazzling first impression was reminiscent of last year’s introduction to wide receiver Ty Montgomery, another Stanford product. And as with Montgomery, the prognostications for playing time poured in rather quickly: Many people believed Martinez could help the Packers immediately as a coverage linebacker, and perhaps more.
But the Martinez hubbub obscured fellow linebacker Joe Thomas, the player who served as the coverage linebacker last season. Cut by the Packers after training camp, Thomas spent two weeks on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad before Thompson recalled him following the season-ending injury to Barrington. Thomas was handed the keys to the dime defense, where he served as the only linebacker and chief communicator, and logged 319 snaps with uneven results. But he still enters the year as an incumbent and he's intent on keeping the job.
“Right now I’m just competing for my spot,” Thomas said, “wherever it may be.”
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That Thomas had a spot at all was impressive given his undersized frame and small-school background. A product of South Carolina State, where he twice posted seasons of 100 or more tackles in the Football Championship Subdivision, Thomas can recall a conversation in which a member of the coaching staff suggested a move from linebacker to safety. And in the National Football League, where safeties grow as large as Seattle’s Kam Chancellor (6-3, 225), the recommendation was far from outlandish.
But Thomas stuck with linebacker and, after half a year on the Packers' practice squad in 2014, played last season at 6-0½ and 225 pounds, a touch lighter than his listing on the official roster. To put it another way, his job was to cover running backs, tight ends and take on offensive linemen with a body more than two inches shorter and three pounds lighter than backup quarterback Brett Hundley (6-3, 228).
“I felt like me being 225 was a little light and kind of limited me going against offensive linemen and things like that,” Thomas said. “So I just put on a little extra weight.”
Thomas gained 10 pounds during the off-season by lifting weights and “a lot of eating,” mostly proteins and carbohydrates. He entered training camp at 235 pounds, finally within a whiff of Martinez at 237, and there were visible differences in his legs and shoulders.
Though his role was highly specialized last season — he hardly played outside of the dime defense — Thomas believes he can be an every-down player, just as he was in college. His surprisingly impressive blitz efficiency (second on the team with one pressure every seven rushes) and reliable tackling (only three misses) suggest his goals are not impossible, but the evidence comes from a very small samples size. His inexperience and inconsistency in coverage raise additional concerns.
“I don’t want to just limit myself to being a specialist, so I’m going to say I’m an all-down backer,” Thomas said. “Five, six years ago an inside backer was 250 (pounds), you’re looking for big guys. The league is changing to more of a passing league, so you need quicker linebackers that can cover.”
Added defensive back Micah Hyde: "Defenses are changing, and it’s kind of giving a lot more guys an opportunity.”
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Through two practices, Thomas retained his spot with the first-team dime defense, supplemented by reps for Martinez, who played dime linebacker at Stanford last year. When it comes to nickel and base units, Thomas has paired with Carl Bradford as the second-string tandem. Martinez, meanwhile, has worked with the starters.
As with 2015, special teams will be a crucial avenue for Thomas during the remainder of training camp. He played 261 snaps for coordinator Ron Zook last season, developing into a core member alongside Chris Banjo, Jayrone Elliott and Aaron Ripkowski, among others. Thomas said in a perfect world he would be an every-down linebacker who stays on the field for special teams, too.
Somewhere in that mix he will cross paths with Martinez, the player who, along with Barrington, could supplant Thomas in his role as the dime linebacker. But he doesn’t want to make it easy.
“I’m just trying to stay on this field as much as possible,” Thomas said. “First down, second down, special teams — that’s my goal.”