GREEN BAY – Oren Burks can still remember the conversation he had with Blake Martinez soon after the Packers drafted the Vanderbilt linebacker in the third round this past April.
Martinez, coming off a breakthrough sophomore season, knew what it was like to be the new linebacker on the block. It’s a challenge to not only master a new playbook, but also accept the responsibility that comes with the inside linebacker position.
So he offered the following advice to Burks in one of their first encounters: Stay ready. At all times.
“He just said, ‘You never know when your opportunity is going to come,’” Burks recalled. “Coming in … in the back of your mind, you’re maybe thinking, ‘OK, it’s going to happen,’ but when it actually happens, you have to be ready to step up.”
Those words echoed in the rookie linebacker’s head as Burks lined up next to Martinez in the Packers’ starting defense on Tuesday. He’d occasionally taken a handful of reps with the ones over the past few months, but nothing like this.
His insertion with the starters stemmed from veteran linebacker Jake Ryan being carted off the field with a knee injury on Monday. The longest-tenured inside linebacker on the roster, Ryan has been a fixture on defense for the past three seasons.
While Ryan continues to undergo tests to determine the full extent of the injury, the defense proceeded to move forward with Martinez, Burks and a slew of other rookies and first-year players holding down the position.
Playing early and often isn’t new to Burks, if that’s what’s required of him. The safety-turned-linebacker started 40 of the 45 games he played at Vanderbilt, including starting seven of eight games during his redshirt freshman year in 2014.
“I think there’s just a sense of urgency, and doing that much more in preparation,” Burks said. “For me, I hate for guys to get hurt, but this is a chance for me to show what I have and why they brought me in here in the third round. My expectations for myself are extremely high. I just have to get the job done.”
Both Martinez and position coach Patrick Graham gave the young inside linebackers a pep talk of sorts after Ryan’s injury Monday. While it’s an unfortunate development, they reminded them it’s also a huge opportunity for young players to step up and raise the collective effort of the group.
The Packers continued training camp practice Tuesday
It hasn’t required Burks to change his mindset too much. A shot at early playing time is something he’s long pondered dating back to the pre-draft visit he took with the Packers earlier this year, his only official visit leading up to the NFL Draft.
The offseason departures of Morgan Burnett and Joe Thomas through free agency left the Packers with only Martinez and Ryan as the two returning veteran inside linebackers.
Their hope was the addition of Burks, practice-squad holdover Ahmad Thomas (who also possesses a safety background), undrafted rookie Greer Martini and a hungry collection of rookies would push the position forward under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
“We talked about a little bit with what my role will be here – coverage linebacker, dime,” Burks said. “(Graham) said, ‘We only have two vet linebackers so there’s going to be an opportunity for you to come in and play,’ so I knew pretty much right off the bat I was going to get a shot. Now this is the shot. I just have to make it happen.”
There probably is no better example on the Packers’ roster of how quickly rookies must adapt to life in the NFL than Martinez. A fourth-round pick in 2016, Martinez started nine of his 13 games as a rookie before starting all 16 last year en route to finishing second in the NFL in tackles.
He formed a tight bond with Ryan during their two seasons together, but he also understands you have to be flexible over the course of a long season.
“Whatever guys we have in the room, I know we can get it done,” Martinez said. “I think for me it's just being able to keep them up to speed. I want to be that leader out there that makes sure that there is no drop-off, whether it is one of the five rookies out there, I'm going to make sure they know what they're doing.”
General Manager Brian Gutekunst told reporters Tuesday morning before practice he plans to stay patient with the inside linebacker position for the time being, trusting the talent and promise of his young prospects.
Burks admittedly isn’t a loud or boisterous individual, but knows his place on the field. Inside linebackers are natural signal-callers. Depending on what happens with Ryan, he’s ready to tackle anything that’s asked of him.
“In this profession you just have to get the job done,” Burks said. “It’s kind of like the next-man-up mentality. I’m praying for (Ryan). But my role is to step up and fill that role.”