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Blake Martinez is the ILB the Packers deserve — and the one they need right now

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The second-year pro’s excellent play against the run has freed up Dom Capers to get more creative at the other inside linebacker spot.

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Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The book on him coming out of college was that he was a productive tackler, but a throwback type of linebacker. Leading his conference in tackles as a senior, he brought a thump when given the ability to line up a ball-carrier. However, the concerns swirled around the idea that he wasn’t able to get off blocks and be a true run-stopping run-stopping force, nor was he quick enough laterally to make plays on the edge.

As a rookie, Blake Martinez seemed to have little success changing that narrative. He played in thirteen games and started nine of them, but after starting next to Jake Ryan to begin the year, he ceded significant playing time to Joe Thomas in the second half of the season. The six-foot-two, 237-pound Martinez had just a single game with double-digit tackles as a rookie, adding one sack, one interception, and four tackles for loss in 2016 while playing a grand total of 42% of the tam’s defensive snaps.

The game has slowed down for Martinez in 2017, however. Although Kenny Clark might disagree, it appears that no other player in the Packers’ 2016 draft class has made as much of a leap in his second year as the former Stanford backer.

In five games, Martinez has played 78% of the team’s snaps on defense, good for fourth on the team. He’s on pace for 100 total tackles this season, something last done by a Packers linebacker in 2013, when A.J. Hawk eclipsed the mark. Martinez also has matched his TFL and sack totals from last season through just five games.

However, the most impressive part of Martinez’s game is that he has become one of the best run-supporting linebackers in the entire NFL. While Pro Football Focus has him graded as the sixth-best off-ball linebacker in the league, that site’s more valuable numbers are the more concrete analytics. Along those lines, Martinez has the highest run-stop percentage of any player at his position in the NFL. In other words, he makes a tackle for a stop on 14% of the running plays that take place when he is on the field.

That’s truly impressive, and is a testament to Martinez’s highly-regarded work ethic. A look at the tape from this season shows a player who is finding a way to avoid and work through blockers much better than he did as a rookie.

Equally importantly, PFF currently credits Martinez with zero missed tackles on the season. That is consistent with the pre-draft assessment, as Martinez was always looked at as a player who could bring a ball-carrier down if he could get to him.

The beauty of Martinez’s development from a team perspective is that defensive coordinator Dom Capers now has a high-level run-stopper who can be paired up with a player who excels more in coverage. For example, think about the way the team has used Josh Jones and Morgan Burnett as Nitro linebackers. Putting a big safety in that spot gives the team a pair of players at the position with different skill sets and responsibilities, allowing the team more flexibility in its lineups. Furthermore, if the Packers face a run-heavy team, plugging in Jake Ryan next to Martinez gives them another more stout run presence.

And let’s not forget that Martinez has skills in the pass game as well. While making his mark mainly against the run to this point, he has in fact been an effective blitzer, with a sack and a QB hit to his credit so far on the year, along with several hurries. He is affecting the quarterback regularly when Dom Capers sends him on a blitz. His coverage ability continues to be an area for improvement, but it is one that he has already worked on and that is somewhat alleviated by the players around him.

At this point, Martinez looks like he has shed many of the concerns about his all-around game, and is suddenly looking like one of the best off-ball linebackers that the Packers have had in years. Five games is admittedly a small sample size, but his style of play, his consistent presence on the interior of the defense, and the impact plays he has made to this point should make every Packers fan excited to see him continue to develop over the next few years.