This is the sixth in a series of stories that’s examining the Packers’ roster, position by position, heading into training camp. The series continues with the linebackers.
GREEN BAY – It was the natural next step for Blake Martinez.
A tackling machine coming out of Stanford in 2016, the Packers linebacker was set on becoming an every-down player in Green Bay’s defense during his second NFL season.
Martinez did a lot more than that.
The former fourth-round pick not only played 978 snaps over 16 starts in 2017, but also developed into a vital cog in the defense after taking over the communication helmet for an injured Morgan Burnett early last season.
Responsible for relaying checks and calls from the sideline, Martinez enjoyed a breakout year along the way. His 142 tackles ranked second among all NFL defenders last year and represented the most by a Packers defender since the NFL officially began keeping the statistic in 2001.
Still only 24 years old, the 6-foot-2, 237-pound linebacker now looks to take his game to another level in 2018 under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and defensive run-game coordinator/inside linebackers coach Patrick Graham.
Joining Martinez in Graham’s classroom are fourth-year veteran Jake Ryan, who has had at least 80 tackles in each of the past two seasons, and practice-squad holdover Ahmad Thomas.
Both of Green Bay’s hybrid options at linebacker, Morgan Burnett and Joe Thomas, departed in free agency, but General Manager Brian Gutekunst covered his bases with the selection of Vanderbilt’s Oren Burks in the third round of last April’s draft.
A former safety and nickel cornerback, Burks moved to inside linebacker on a permanent basis as a senior in college. It was the right fit for the 6-foot-3, 235-pound prospect, who had a career-high in both tackles (82) and tackles for loss (seven) last year.
Veterans Clay Matthews and Nick Perry again will head the Packers’ depth chart at outside linebacker after leading Green Bay’s defense with 7½ and seven sacks, respectively, in 2017.
Matthews, now the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks with 80, missed all of the offseason program after undergoing knee surgery. He also suffered a broken nose after taking a line drive to the face in his charity softball game in early June, but he tweeted afterward that it could have been much more serious than it was.
Perry had seven sacks in the first nine games last season before injuries took their toll. The 2012 first-round pick missed four games due to ankle, shoulder and hand ailments before he finally was placed on injured reserve Dec. 30.
Competing to fill out the edge-rushing rotation are former third-round pick Kyler Fackrell, Wisconsin Rapids native Vince Biegel, Reggie Gilbert and Chris Odom.
The Packers also added Southeast Missouri linebacker Kendall Donnerson in the seventh round of this year’s NFL Draft. The 6-foot-2, 248-pound pass rusher had 10 sacks during his final two collegiate seasons and clocked an impressive 4.48-second time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day to become the first Redhawk to get drafted since 2004.
Fackrell possesses the most experience of the contenders, playing 446 defensive snaps last season on his way to 28 tackles and three sacks in 16 games (two starts).
A fourth-round pick out of Wisconsin last year, Biegel started the season on the physically unable to perform list, after undergoing surgery on both of his feet after rookie orientation in May 2017, before seeing action in nine games.
Gilbert became a Cinderella story late last season after spending nearly two full seasons on the Packers’ practice squad. The 6-foot-3, 261-pound linebacker recorded five pressures, three quarterback hits and a sack in the final two games of the season.