The New York Giants made their second splash of free agency by signing former Green Bay Packers’ linebacker Blake Martinez. Let’s look at what the Giants are getting.
Martinez has exceeded 100 tackles in his last three seasons and was the signal-caller for the Packer defense in 2019. A proven leader, Martinez used constant communication to adjust his defense, while shifting and audibling the unit to combat the offense. Martinez finished 2019 with 155 tackles, 97 solo, five tackles for a loss, and three sacks while receiving marginal grades from Pro Football Focus. Among 24 linebackers who played 900 or more snaps, Martinez ranked 17th in overall defense, 22nd in run defense, 13th in tackling, fourth in pass rush, and ninth in coverage, but an argument can be formed to suggest that there was a huge lack of talent playing in front of him.
Martinez seemed to do much better in his first two seasons under Dom Capers. My concern with the deal, off the cuff, is the money when juxtaposed with the contracts of Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkowski; Littleton, the darling of the majority of the Giants’ fan base, signed for only $1.5 million more annually ($11.75 million for Littleton, $10.25 million for Martinez). Kwiatkowski, who does well in coverage, signed for three years and $21 million ($7 million per year), rather than the three-year, $30.75 million Martinez received.
I didn’t want to immediately conclude that the Giants overpaid, but I do question who they were bidding against, and why value was had all over the free-agent linebacker market. Although I do like the three-year deal, which won’t hamper or hold the Giants down in the future. Nevertheless, I wanted to go into this film study with a clear mind on Martinez, and this is what I came up with.
Martinez typically does well as an in the box, two-down, linebacker against the run. He’s a smart player, who puts himself in a good position to execute his run fits and maintain his gap assignment. In the first clip, you see Martinez flow to the zone, with the lineman having a free release; luckily for Martinez, the lineman is coming in at an angle and Martinez can gain enough leverage towards the running back’s hole that the lineman cannot capitalize on the free release. Brian O’Neill (75) extends and over-pursues, allowing Martinez to engage, jolt, and remove O’Neill. Then Martinez locates Mike Boone and makes the tackle.
That’s a nice rep from Martinez, who does show signs of struggling to shed bigger offensive linemen with clean releases when Martinez does not get a jump on the play. Martinez does a good job moving laterally on the outside zone, seeing through Ben Garland (63), and keeping his eyes on the running back’s path. Garland attempts to seal Martinez from getting outside, but Martinez doesn’t over-pursue and wisely stays in the cut-back lane, shedding Garland and making the tackle. The third clip shows Martinez’s ability to take on contact in space, absorb, and still make the tackle. Kyle Juszczyk locates Martinez, who is the only defender in the area, but Martinez remains low, explodes through his hips with strong hands, and sheds Juszczyk before he finds the ball carrier for a stop. These are three good clips to show Martinez’s effectiveness within the box.
I mentioned above Martinez’s mental processing and high football IQ. As a result, he can key and diagnose blocking schemes and running plays. The 49ers ran the ball down the throats of the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Martinez didn’t have a great game, but the team was out-schemed, out-coached, and out-played. Here are two good clips that showcase Martinez’s ability to read these plays and react in a timely manner that’s advantageous to the defense. At the snap, Martinez (50) sees the double pull on the pin-pull concept counter run. Before the running back is moving downhill, Martinez is already heading towards the play-side C-Gap where he meets the second puller in the backfield and blows up the running play. The second clip is similar. The interior slant by Za’Darius Smith helps, but Martinez is in position and that results in yet another stop for the defense, something they couldn’t get enough of in that game.
Above are more examples of his ability to read, react, attack, key and diagnose plays against different types of running styles. When he’s close to the line of scrimmage, he does a good job staying low, taking away running backs options, keeping his chest clean, and filling holes. All of that materializes above, but he does struggle with this in space, and when off the line of scrimmage against bigger interior linemen who have clean releases.
The first clip shows the struggles I alluded to above. Clean release, gets turned, little chance of success because he was late to the party. The second clip against Detroit seemed to be a designed blitz through the A-gap that was picked up. Once his path was blocked, he attempted to scrape over the top of the double team and get to the B-gap, but to little avail. I don’t necessarily want to knock him huge for that play, but in the third clip, you see Cody Whitehair climb to the second level, locate Martinez and gobble him up.
I saw this a few times against Detroit, a few times against San Francisco, and a few different times in the second matchup with the Vikings. There were, however, many more examples of Martinez winning in these situations with decisive choices, a low center of gravity, and an ability to stack and shed. The main element that assists him in this area, is his ability to be in the right place at the right time, through reading and reacting. Martinez does a good job baiting running backs and playing the game of “cat and mouse” when facing inside zone, while still maintaining gap discipline, but facing linemen with free releases up to the second level, when he doesn’t react quickly, don’t always end in his favor.
From everything I saw, Martinez was a slightly above average, wrap up tackler, but there were alarming instances that point back to Martinez’s lack of high-end athletic ability. The first clip I attribute as a mistake. These types of misses didn’t appear often on Martinez’s film, but it’s against Marvin Jones Jr., an athletic wide receiver who slipped out of Martinez’s grasp. Now, something that is apparent in Martinez’s film is his vulnerability against really athletic players. He’s not an overly athletic player, nor does he rely on his athletic ability, but I, for one, was hoping the Giants would go in the direction of these athletic linebackers that are the new craze of the NFL.
There has been a ton of scrutiny against Martinez’s ability to cover. I can see why some of it is warranted as he could do a better job with his spatial awareness in zone coverage, but he wasn’t often asked to play man against tight ends. A lot of the catches he surrendered in 2019 were to slot receivers on underneath routes, far superior athletes, or running backs on check-downs, but you can see some deficiencies.
I do not expect Martinez to shadow Anthony Miller on a horizontal cross, but Martinez had the step and leverage, while also doing a pretty good job flipping his hips into a good position. My issue, that long into the play, he didn’t carry the route. I know, it’s a tough ask and it probably wouldn’t have mattered, but maybe it would have deterred Mitchell Trubisky from making that throw on the run. The spatial awareness issue is evident in the second clip. He gets stuck looking at the underneath route and misjudges where Trubisky is going with the football. I wish there were more ball skills at play here as Martinez has only 17 passes defensed in four years. You can see a misjudged angle on the flare in the third clip, too, further substantiating the athletic questions.
Martinez is a solid run defender within the confines of the tackle box. Very smart, with an excellent ability to key and diagnose blocking schemes. Plays with solid leverage, with solid shedding ability and is rarely out of position. Good at scraping over the top of blocks and locating ball carriers to the boundary side of the field, even though he played predominantly as the field linebacker in nickel/sub-packages for the Packers. Solid tackler in space, especially against players with only solid lateral quickness. Can blitz and has had success doing it. He has all the intangibles you want as a defensive play-caller and has exceptional awareness and command, by all accounts. Athletic limitations show up against lateral runs to the field and while in coverage. The lack of elite athletic traits will upset Giants’ fans and I understand the plight, but this is still an upgrade over Alec Ogletree. What Martinez will bring to the run defense is an upgrade, but I don’t see him being dynamic covering tight ends in man, which is something he didn’t do a whole lot of in Green Bay. We will probably see a lot of three-safety looks, but you don’t normally give $10 million a year to a two-down player. It should be interesting to see how the defense is deployed with Martinez roaming the middle.