Green Bay Packers could break from past by spending high pick on inside linebacker
Seventh in a 10-part Packers draft position-preview series: Inside linebackers.
GREEN BAY - Blake Martinez’ snap counts have risen in each of his first three seasons, from a healthy 438 as a rookie to 979 in 2017, and then 1,049 last fall. He has already played a lot of football to this point in his career, enough for the Packers to know precisely what he gives the middle of their defense.
In Martinez, the Packers have one of the most active tacklers of any off-ball linebacker in the NFL. No doubt benefiting from a strong interior defensive line, Martinez has been free to show his range and instincts within the box. After tying for the NFL lead with 144 tackles in 2017, Martinez duplicated it with 144 tackles again last season, second in the league behind only Indianapolis’ Darius Leonard.
Yet for all the activity Martinez brings, sticking his helmet in seemingly every play, limitations remain in pass coverage. He is susceptible to play-action passes, something he has worked to improve since his rookie season. And though he had a potential breakout season as a pass rusher, finishing with five sacks last year after combining for just two in his first two seasons, big plays are rare.
Martinez didn’t have an interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery last season. Compare that to Leonard, a first-team All-Pro who had seven sacks last year as a rookie, and also two interceptions, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
The Packers are hoping Oren Burks makes a big second-year jump. They drafted him last year in the third round knowing he might need time to develop. A converted safety, Burks has both the athletic ability to upgrade their midfield coverage but also the inexperience to require a learning transition.
Burks might be able to provide that coverage boost this season, but that would likely leave the Packers in the market for a big-play linebacker. There’s something to be said for having a havoc-wreaking turnover machine in the middle of a defense. Just look at what Leonard did for the Colts as a rookie. Same for Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith, who along with five sacks had an interception and five defended passes as a rookie.
Plenty of positions are in play for the Packers with their two first-round picks, including tight end, offensive line, receiver, outside linebacker and safety. If you want a dark-horse possibility, perhaps the Packers might break from tradition and draft an inside linebacker high. Because as productive as Martinez has been, he could be only better if paired with dynamic talent.
Priority level: Medium.
Devin White, Louisiana State
The good: An all-down linebacker blessed with a rare blend of strength and speed. Ran a 4.43 40 at combine while benching 22 reps of 225 pounds. “He’s a stud,” one scout called him. Played running back in high school but converted to linebacker in college. Impressed against good competition. Led SEC in tackles last season with 123, 10 fewer than his sophomore year. Won Butkus Award as nation’s top linebacker in 2018. Often played behind line of scrimmage, with 13.5 tackles for loss as sophomore and 12 as junior. Had nine defended passes and one interception in past two seasons. Big-time, playmaking potential. “He’s a top-10 pick,” another scout said. “He’s the guy.”
The bad: Still developing instincts on the defense’s second level after converting from offensive side. Can over pursue on misdirection and bite on play fakes. Must work on leverage at point of attack.
Devin Bush, Michigan
The good: All-down linebacker who can play every snap, regardless of base or sub-package defense. Ran a 4.43 with 21 reps at combine. Tremendous instincts to go along with athleticism. Plays stronger than his size. “He’s physical,” one scout said. Great range to the football. Good blitzer, recording 10 sacks in past two seasons. Defended 11 passes with one interception in past two seasons. Team captain. Named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season.
The bad: Undersized as an inside linebacker. Struggles to disengage against bigger blockers. “Devin White is just bigger,” a scout said. Of the two, White played against better competition. “They’re both good players,” another scout said.
This isn’t a position the Packers have historically valued high in the draft. Since drafting A.J. Hawk fifth overall in 2006, the Packers have drafted 11 inside linebackers. None were selected in the first two rounds. Perhaps Gutekunst is more open to drafting an inside linebacker with a premium pick. Of the 11, Burks, a Gutekunst pick, was the only drafted in the third round.
Recent draft history
Year, Round, Overall: Player, School
2018, 3, 88 overall: Oren Burks, Vanderbilt
2016, 4, 131 overall: Blake Martinez, Stanford
2015, 4, 129 overall: Jake Ryan, Michigan
2014, 4, 121 overall: Carl Bradford, Arizona State
2013, 6, 193 overall: Nate Palmer, Illinois State
2013, 7, 232 overall: Sam Barrington, South Florida
A glance at what year the Packers players at the position are signed through and their age on opening day:
Oren Burks (24)
Blake Martinez (25)
James Crawford (24)