Rookie linebacker Blake Martinez is making a good early impression in many ways.
The Green Bay Packers appear committed to using him as a full-time linebacker, and while we won’t really know what kind of player he is until there’s tackling in a preseason game, his play the first week of camp has justified their working him as a starter in their base, nickel and dime defenses.
That’s unusual for a rookie fourth-round draft pick, especially as the lone linebacker in the dime. The job carries a lot of responsibility.
But there already are signs that Martinez will be their best option, especially with Sam Barrington’s chances of making a run at any of those jobs dwindling while he’s on the PUP list because of a broken ankle that’s prevented him from playing football since the regular-season opener last year.
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The first thing to notice about Martinez during 11-on-11 drills is his awareness. You can see him scan the field and look over the formation. One play during Family Night on Sunday the offense split a running back out, and Martinez went with him. That’s something a rookie linebacker might miss. But Martinez was aware of what was happening in front of him.
Martinez isn’t an explosive runner — at the NFL scouting combine he ran the 40 in 4.71 seconds, which isn’t particularly fast for a coverage linebacker — and that’s the main reason he wasn’t picked higher than the fourth round. But he appears to play faster than that time suggests, and a little faster than what we’ve seen over the past year from Jake Ryan and Barrington.
For instance, on one play Sunday night Martinez matched up on receiver Davante Adams, and though Adams made the catch on a route breaking to the sidelines, Martinez was on his hip. He knew his assignment, and he showed the ability to turn his hips and run. It’s just that the pitch and catch were a little better.
We won’t know Martinez’s story in the running game until there’s live tackling in a preseason game. Barrington, for instance, is a thumper. Ryan also is a good hitter who presses the line of scrimmage and finishes plays. Is Martinez like that? Or is he a chase-you-down, rope-you-down guy like A.J. Hawk was later in his career?
All we’ve seen in the first week of practice when there’s no tackling to the ground, is that Martinez hasn’t been taking false steps, and he’s pressed the line rather than waiting for the ball carrier to come to him. We’ll see if does that and then finishes plays in live action.
It’s also worth pointing out that on Saturday morning, about a half hour before the official start of the 8:15 a.m. practice, Martinez was the lone player on the field stretching and warming up.
That tells you he’s a football guy, he’s there to prepare and get ready for practice. He’s a rookie playing full time, including running the dime defense even though he’s been with the team for only a few months. That’s a crucial role that requires multiple skills: running with a receiver on crossing routes, punching a tight end coming off the ball, staying with a running back, getting guys lined up correctly.
You didn’t see any glaring mistakes during Family Night. That’s a promising starting point.
Spriggs looks the part
Second-round pick Jason Spriggs can really pick up his feet and is more athletic than starting tackle David Bakhtiari was as a rookie in 2013, but he’s not as good technically as Bakhtiari was when the latter became a starter in his first season.
Spriggs has a prototypical left tackle body (6-5⅝) with long arms (34 inches) and decent knee bend. But he needs to get stronger in the upper body. He tends to lunge on his initial punch, which gets him a little off balance. And against speed rushers he doesn’t yet use his length as well as he could.
A tackle doesn’t have to bloody a pass rusher’s nose with his punch. What he needs is good hand placement and to lock out his elbows. Then it’s hard for the rusher to collapse his arms. If a tackle doesn’t lock out, he has to be really strong to keep the rusher off his body and push him wide of the quarterback. Bakhtiari was good at locking out from the get-go.
Clark starts fast
First-round pick Kenny Clark is looking like he’ll help the Packers immediately.
The nose tackle does two things that stand out: He keeps his pads low, and he uses his hands well.
A lot of talented defensive linemen get away with sloppy technique in college because they’re bigger and stronger than everyone they face. But the NFL exposes warts.
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Jerel Worthy, a Packers second-round pick in 2012, is a perfect example. His main talent was getting a quick jump off the snap, and in college he was quicker and stronger and faster than almost all the offensive linemen he faced. But in the NFL, quarterbacks’ cadences kept him from anticipating the count, and he couldn’t physically dominate the blockers like he did in college. He’s now out of the NFL.
Clark, on the other hand, is good fundamentally along with being talented enough to be a first-round pick. He keeps his pads low, so in half-line run drills and team drills on Family Night you didn’t see him once get pushed out of position. He also kept his hands in tight, so a few times he was able to drive back the blocker two or three yards.
We’ll see as camp goes on and he gets work as a nickel pass rusher how he is getting off blocks and getting up field. But as a nose tackle against the run, he holds his gap well and sometimes gets some push.
It’s rare to see a guy that young (he turns 21 in October) who plays with good technique. And the Packers are going to need him after B.J. Raji’s surprise retirement in the offseason and Mike Pennel’s four-game suspension to start the season.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1