GREEN BAY - Three months before the NFL draft, Blake Martinez wanted to be a first-round pick. Of course he did. Every college football star foresees bright lights and short waits before hearing his name called on draft night.
Martinez was no different.
“I was like, ‘OK, I want to get drafted super high',” he said.
Reality hit two weeks before the draft.
His name wasn’t mentioned in mocks. His momentum was sinking to the middle rounds. Martinez saw the writing on the wall.
He made a decision.
“In my head,” Martinez said, “I really didn’t care. I was kind of at the point where coming out of high school, I was a two-, three-star guy, not highly recruited. Maybe had one offer before I went to camps, and then showed them that I could actually play football. Then they were like, ‘Hey, OK, we’re going to give you a scholarship.’ That happened at Stanford and Oregon.
“Going into the draft, I had that same thought process, where, ‘All right, wherever I end up — no matter if I get drafted, free agent, whatever happens — I’m going to go there, and I’m going to work my butt off to show that I can play football, and that I can do those things that they need me to do. And hopefully, one day, be that starter that they wanted me to be.’”
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For Martinez, it’s the natural progression of things. See the doubts. Attack them. Move on.
You bet there’s a chip on his shoulder. Martinez would watch fellow rookie linebacker Reggie Ragland from the sideline at the Senior Bowl, he said, taking mental notes on why scouts liked the Alabama All-American better. He studied why players like Myles Jack and Jaylon Smith rose to the top of his class.
He worked to get better.
“I would always like to look at a given player,” Martinez said, “and be like, ‘OK, what does this guy have better than I do? Why do people keep comparing him above me?’ Every time I kind of looked at those things, I took little pieces here and there that I saw that, ‘Hey, maybe one is more athletic than I am. Maybe one is more of a downhill hitter in the gaps.’ Whatever it was, I made sure I worked on those every single day.”
One day, he hoped, his chance to be a starter would come. In Green Bay, it might happen a lot sooner than expected for a fourth-round pick.
Martinez has impressed his coaches through training camp’s opening two weeks. He takes almost all the first-team reps in base, nickel and dime. His starter reps in the Packers' subpackage defenses are the clearest sign he could play early and often.
Coaches have been especially impressed with Martinez’s maturity. He is a young player, only a two-year starter despite playing four seasons at Stanford, but has learned the Packers concepts quickly. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Martinez’s instincts were noticeable from the moment he arrived.
Coach Mike McCarthy usually hesitates to heap too much praise toward rookies. Better to lower expectations, lessen the pressure. When asked whether the Packers were giving Martinez too many responsibilities to digest early in camp, McCarthy didn’t waver.
“I think Blake showed that he could pick it up quickly in the OTAs,” McCarthy said, “and more importantly that he can apply it. He’s practiced well. I think the recognition, the communication, he’s done a good job. So it’ll be fun to see what he does Sunday.”
That was last week. Sunday was supposed to be Martinez’s debut.
Instead, the Packers' preseason opener in the Hall of Fame Game against the Indianapolis Colts was canceled.
Most of the Packers didn’t mind their preseason opener being wiped out. It was an extra, fifth exhibition game. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn’t going to play. Several key starters likely would have joined him on the sideline.
The game had more significance for Martinez. As a rookie, he has shown everything he can in practice. The Packers drafted him to cover, and Martinez has taken the bulk of coverage reps. He has more than held up in the base 3-4 defense, something that was less certain.
Martinez has not tackled, or been asked to tackle, because the Packers don’t practice live reps. For a linebacker, tackling remains the position’s quintessential job. So don’t suggest these preseason games mean nothing to Martinez. The rookie knows better.
“I think it’s huge,” Martinez said, “because like they say, practice is a time to get better, but the games is where it shows that you’re going to be that impactful guy on the field. And show that you’re going to be able to step out there and make those plays that need to be made, and be that guy that can be that leader on the defense.”
Hear Martinez describe his development, and it’s clear he’s been listening to his position coach.
Scott McCurley said “you can only be impressed” with Martinez’s offseason to this point. He has absorbed the defense beyond most rookies at his position. “Very mature,” McCurley said. “Very instinctive.” Martinez might not have the fastest 40-yard dash (4.71 seconds). His recognition enables him to play faster.
But that’s just practice. Games are for impact. McCurley knows a rookie can be praised only so much before he hits an opponent.
“He’s very smooth,” McCurley said, “so you don’t worry about a 4.7 40-yard dash. Guys that are very, very smart and instinctive, they play fast. So they play fast enough. When you put that with some real good technique and real good fundamentals and real good awareness, to where he anticipates well, it can make up for anything.
“He’s off to a very solid start. He’s obviously a guy you’re going to look forward to in the preseason, just to see how he matches up with some other competition.”
Martinez has been chasing his competition for months.
In Buffalo, a partial ACL tear threatens Ragland’s rookie season. Smith won’t play for the Dallas Cowboys until 2017 because of a knee injury. For the first time last week, Jack got first-team reps with the Jaguars defense.
The Packers rookie has taken first-team reps since the first day of organized team activities. His chance is here. He just needs to seize it.
“My target is just every single day,” Martinez said, “show them that I can be what they wanted me to be. I think that three-down linebacker is what every team wants. So if I can show that, and keep improving on that, and they can trust me to put me out there and do those things, then I’ll be completely happy.”