GREEN BAY - When rookie inside linebacker Blake Martinez walked into the locker room and did his first news conference as a Green Bay Packer, he was thinking that a position in the starting lineup was something attainable.
Four months later, not only is he in the starting lineup, but he’ll be receiving the plays from defensive coordinator Dom Capers through a helmet radio and setting the defense in the season opener against Jacksonville on Sunday.
“My mindset was that I wanted to start,” Martinez said Tuesday. “But you step in here and each day you think about, ‘All right, I’m going to make sure I’m the best guy I can be for not myself but the guys around me.
“Whatever role they put me in, at the end of the day, that’s what I’m going to be the best at.”
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Martinez will be joined by second-year pro Jake Ryan at inside linebacker, giving the Packers a starting tandem with seven starts and 329 snaps between them. It is the youngest position on the team and the two are part of a complete makeover general manager Ted Thompson has orchestrated over the last two seasons.
Last year, it was cutting veteran A.J. Hawk and drafting Ryan in the fourth round. This year, it was drafting Martinez in the fourth round and cutting Sam Barrington.
The holdover is second-year pro Joe Thomas, who had been cut twice before being signed off Dallas’ practice squad to be the Packers' dime linebacker last year. There are no other inside linebackers on the 53-man roster, only Carl Bradford on the practice squad.
The Packers are hoping that Martinez and Ryan can play beyond their years and complement each other. Martinez was drafted based mostly on his coverage ability, and Ryan regularly was making tackles behind the line of scrimmage in college.
“We have a lot of fun out there, working together,” Martinez said. “We each kind of calm each other down and make it that much easier.”
Ryan has to catch up some after missing two weeks of camp with a hamstring injury and really having only a week of full practice and game action to get himself back into football condition. The mental part was coming back, Ryan said, and with a full week of practice leading up to the game he should be able to handle a fairly good load.
But that’s where Thomas comes in. After putting on weight in the offseason to help him be more than just a cover linebacker, Thomas may be woven into the rotation in situations where he’s better suited for what’s coming then Ryan.
Thomas said the Packers are taking a leap of faith going with three young inside linebackers, but he thinks they made the right choice.
“I think all three guys played pretty well,” Thomas said of training camp. “We showed a lot. We built confidence in ourselves and the coaches and scouts got confidence in us. We’re still growing.”
Before they released Barrington, the coaches put Martinez through every conceivable test there is to make sure he was worthy of being a starter. Barrington missed all the organized team activities and part of training camp because of his surgically repaired ankle, and that opened the door for Martinez to handle the play-calling and all that goes with it.
He played in the base defense, the nickel and the dime. He was asked to cover tight ends and backs and to blitz quarterbacks up the middle and off the edge. Whatever Capers could come up with, Martinez was asked to do it.
“They’ve put us through it all,” Martinez said. “It’s a good thing because you’re kind of prepared for every look there’s possibly going to be. There will be unscouted looks here and there and you have to be ready for it, but I think with me and Jake in there we’re preparing well just to see those things and adjust on the fly.”