GREEN BAY – As Kamal Martin took the field this past Sunday in Houston, it wasn't lost on the Packers linebacker that he was about to play in his first football game in 330 days.
And Martin radiated that same energy during an NFL debut that saw the rookie fifth-round pick go from playing the run linebacker in the base package to stepping in as the every-down communicator over the course of his 29 defensive snaps.
With six second-half tackles (including one for a loss), Martin flashed the same explosiveness and physicality that made him stand out during training camp before a knee injury sidelined him for the first six weeks of the season.
"That's a pretty difficult position to be in, but I was happy with a lot of the things he did and him just flying around," Head Coach Matt LaFleur said. "He's a big physical presence out there.
"I see a guy that has a lot of playmaking ability. So I was really encouraged by what Kamal did."
Martin enjoyed a decorated career at Minnesota before a late-season knee injury in 2019 required surgery. A fifth-round pick by Green Bay last April, Martin staked a legitimate claim for a starting linebacker spot opposite veteran Christian Kirksey despite lacking a physical offseason program.
After a six-week layoff, Martin picked up where he left off alongside fellow rookie Krys Barnes, the undrafted free agent who has been wearing the communication helmet since veteran Kirksey landed on IR with a pectoral injury.
Martin played sparingly in the first half against the Texans, with the Packers pairing safety Raven Greene with Barnes in the box in sub-packages, but plans quickly changed when Barnes exited with a shoulder injury after the first play of third quarter.
Pressed into action as the every-down linebacker, Martin made an emphatic first impression when he put tight end Darren Fells on his heels to drop Texans running back David Johnson for a 1-yard loss on second-and-goal from the Green Bay 2.
On second-and-6, with a little more than 9 minutes left in the game, Martin kept his feet moving and shot the gap to pop Johnson again to hold the veteran back to a 1-yard gain.
"It was just fun to get out there and play football again," Martin said. "I hadn't played football in a while after I got hurt last year (at Minnesota). So it was just fun to get out there and fly around and just play ball again, knowing what I do and play how I play."
Martin displayed his athleticism when dropping into coverage, as well. He contributed to the Packers forcing the Texans into a three-and-out midway through the third quarter when Martin and nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan converged on former Packers receiver Randall Cobb to force the incompletion.
This was the type of impact Green Bay was hoping Martin could make in the middle of Mike Pettine's defense when it drafted the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker in the spring.
The fact he was able to handle Mike linebacker duties despite hardly practicing there during the week, according to LaFleur, was a testament to his preparation. Inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti alluded to Martin's diligence when addressing reporters last Thursday.
"He did a really, really good job of staying involved while he was not being able to practice," Olivadotti said. "It's one thing to say that you did that. It's another thing, once you get back out there, to not be so far behind even the technique things that he needed to work on."
Martin is far from a finished product, but he and Barnes have given the Packers reason for optimism at an inside linebacker position that looks completely new. With Oren Burks' shift to outside linebacker, that leaves second-year veteran Ty Summers as the lone holdover in Olivadotti's room from a year ago.
It remains to be seen what the injury forecast looks like for both Barnes and Greene, who left with an oblique injury near the end of the third quarter.
Barnes is just thrilled to be healthy again and feels like he's at a point where he could play a full game if that's what's required. Whatever the coaches decide, the 23-year-old linebacker hopes Sunday's promising start was a sign of positive things to come.
"It was just a great opportunity to play this awesome, beautiful game again," Martin said. "We got a lot of work to do, but we're gonna keep improving and we're gonna come to work every day looking to get better."