The Green Bay Packers let linebacker Blake Martinez walk in free agency this year, as the former fourth-round draft pick signed a contract with the New York Giants early on in the process. Martinez received a three-year, $30 million deal from the Giants, who have him tabbed as one of their starting inside linebackers moving forward.
However, the fallout between Martinez and the Packers seems clear, as the two sides seemingly talked only briefly and did not negotiate with any significance. Martinez weighed in on his role on a conference call with Giants media on Monday, and it is obvious from his comments that he was unhappy with how the Packers used and valued him over the past few years.
According to Martinez, who was quoted by several Giants reporters, he and the Packers did speak, but that the value the Packers placed on him was not in line with what he felt his value should have been. Furthermore, Martinez said that the Packers do not value the inside linebacker position as a whole the way other teams do, a sentiment that jibes with the lack of resources the Packers have devoted to the spot under general managers Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst.
That may explain why the Packers were willing to take a chance on a lower-priced player in Christian Kirksey — whose deal was for $6.5 million per year over two years — rather than pony up $10 million annually to re-sign Martinez. However, the role that Martinez said he was asked to play, particularly in 2019, also led to his departure.
Martinez told the media that he was “taught and told to be the clean-up guy” on defense. This suggests that he was limited in his capacity to make plays himself, perhaps being told instead to lay back and let the play come to him rather than being an attacking player. He further suggested that this caused misconceptions about his skill set, perhaps alluding to the perception that he has not been an effective player in pass coverage.
Further underscoring that Martinez perceived his role under Mike Pettine as a passive one is this comment:
Martinez says he had no gap responsibilities in GB this past season and was basically told by DC Mike Pettine to play off whatever Za’Darius and Preston Smith did up front and “make them right.” Hmmm... #Packers #Giants— Pat Leonard (@PLeonardNYDN) March 30, 2020
This is another way of saying that Martinez was only an afterthought on defense, suggesting that his marching orders were simply to get the team lined up correctly and clean up any mistakes that the star edge rushers made. He seems to think that this role, particularly in 2019, resulted in his statistics and the optics of his game going downhill. As The Athletic’s Dan Duggan notes, the complaint was that Martinez ended up making fewer big plays and tackling ball-carriers farther down field, a trend that was indeed borne out in the numbers.
Whether this is the right approach by coordinator Mike Pettine can be up for debate, and this could be a case of exaggeration by a disgruntled former player. Without hearing from Pettine — something that is effectively impossible while team facilities are shut down amid coronavirus concerns — there would be little opportunity to confirm whether Martinez’s description is even accurate. What is clear is that it is Martinez’s read on the Packers’ 2019 scheme, and that it bothered him to not receive more opportunities to make plays of his own.
One number that may underscore this difference is the fact that Martinez rushed the passer far less often last season than he did in 2018. Pro Football Reference logged him as having 61 blitz attempts in 2018, when he set a career high with five sacks. That number plummeted to just 24 attempts last fall, though he still sacked the quarterback three times.
Although a reduction in pass-rushing productivity can be explained by fewer opportunities, Martinez still took a step backwards in a few other areas that are less clearly explained. Last season, Martinez missed 17 tackles according to Sports Info Solutions, setting a new career-high after missing 12 in 2018 and 16 in 2017. He also performed more poorly in allowing completions into his coverage as well in 2019, giving up a completion rate of 84% compared to 74% in 2018 per Pro Football Reference. He lowered his passer rating against from 118.9 to 102.1, due in large part to reducing his touchdowns allowed from five to two and intercepting his first pass in several years, but his yards per target rose a full yard, almost entirely due to the increase in completion percentage.
In addition, Martinez sounds like a man who is excited to have a former Packers teammate joining him in the Meadowlands. That once and future teammate is Kyler Fackrell, whom Martinez praised for his abilities in zone coverage. He also said that Fackrell was in a similar position to him, and that there are “a lot of things he hasn’t been able to show” in Green Bay.
Perhaps a big reason for Martinez deciding to sign with the Giants was Patrick Graham’s arrival as defensive coordinator. Graham coached the Packers’ inside linebackers in 2018, Martinez said that the two became “super close” in that season. With Graham also helping on the defense while Fackrell had his 10.5-sack season that year, it’s possible that there may be bigger things ahead for these two former Packers in 2020 and beyond.
Still, even if all of Martinez’s comments are entirely accurate, the question remains whether Pettine was right to approach the defense in that way for the good of the team. Although the Packers were run out of Levi’s Stadium twice by the San Francisco 49ers, the unit improved from a 22nd-place ranking in points per game in 2018 to 9th in 2019, and the success of the unit came in large part from its new arrivals on the edge. The Smiths combined for 25.5 sacks and 84 total quarterback pressures, becoming a driving force for the unit.
Martinez may indeed have a chance to shine as an individual in New York. But with a rookie head coach and coordinator and a second-year quarterback, it looks unlikely that his new team is set up to compete for a title the way the Packers did a year ago.