Wait a minute. Hold on. Here I am, in the process of getting Green Bay’s quarterback situation resolved, and TP readers have all headed off to search for gold in the free agent market. Okay, I’ll put off my continuing series of QB posts for a few days.
At least the mob has a focus on what the Packers most urgently need to address by way of free agency (or contract retention). No, the focus is not on the status of Jimmy Graham – even his mama knows that he won’t be staying in Green Bay. Nor are the free agency zealots overly focused on wide receivers – the conventional wisdom seems to be that the college class of 2019 is so filled with future NFL All-Pro receivers Gutekunst will have plenty of prospects to pick from come draft time.
No, most of you have your sights on Blake Martinez’s replacement. Though my sentiments on the matter have been previously aired, I’ve listened to the critics, and I’m willing to grab a fresh legal pad and start over from scratch.
As a starter, can we agree that the most challenging position on an NFL roster is inside linebacker – which in Pettine’s predominant scheme, usually amounts to being a middle linebacker? He’s the one most responsible for curtailing the opponent’s run game. He’s also often a pass defender. He’s sometimes assigned to go man to man with a tight end or a slot receiver, or he shadows a running back who sets up for a screen pass, or he’s the guy assigned to spy on a mobile quarterback. He frequently acts as a zone defender for a receiver who enters the short or medium middle of the field. And when he’s not doing this or that, he’s expected to be a skilled blitzer and sack man.
If Green Bay is to achieve an upgrade by replacing Martinez, it had better be with a multi-talented and super-athletic guy.
In my mind, Job 1 for this jack-of-all-trades position is tackling. While I believe there has been a clear, and small, ILB top tier – namely Luke Kuechly (CAR), Bobby Wagner (SEA), and Blake – I’ve been in the minority. Let’s revisit the raw data now that another regular season is in the books.
From 2017 through 2019, Blake has accumulated 144, 144, and most recently 155 tackles. Here’s who the other NFL linebackers who’ve recorded 144 or more tackles in a season in that span of time: Wagner (159 in 2019), Kuechly (144 in 2019), the Cards’ Jordan Hicks (149 in 2019), the Ravens’ Darius Leonard (163 in 2018), the Bills’ Preston Brown (144 in 2017), and the Browns’ Joe Schobert (144 in 2017). In other words, only six other players have reached – and they’ve all done so just once – the milestone Blake has achieved in each of his last three years.
I think we can narrow the list of top ILBs a bit. On January 14, Kuechly announced his retirement after eight years in the trenches – it is believed that three serious concussions led to his decision.
Preston Brown peaked in 2017. Since then, the much-injured guy has recorded 42 tackles in 2018 and 53 in 2019. In a 6-year career, Brown has played for Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Oakland. In December, the Jaguars claimed him off waivers.
Jordan Hicks might also be a one-hit wonder. In his four years prior to 2019, he averaged only 63.5 tackles. He too has been much injured, missing seven games in 2017 and four more in 2018. After four years with the Eagles, Hicks was rewarded by the Cardinals in 2019 with a 4-year $36M contract – so he’s unavailable in any case.
Darius Leonard had that massive total of 163 tackles in his rookie year of 2018 – for which he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and first team All Pro. The Colts expended the 36th overall pick to get such a player. This past season, however, he dropped back to 121 tackles. Early in 2019, he missed three-games with concussion-like symptoms. Still, the 24-year-old Leonard might well take Kuechly’s place in that ILB top tier. However, the Colts have him signed up through 2021.
Which brings us to Joe Schobert, who played for Wisconsin from 2012 through 2015. Though he’s been a quality player for the Browns for four years, in his other three campaigns he’s finished with only 133, 103, and 28 tackles. He started only four games in his rookie year, and he missed three games in 2018 with a hamstring injury. Schobert is set to become a free agent in March.
Before you advocate dumping Martinez, be reminded that available standout middle linebackers don’t grow on trees.
It’s apparent that ILBs are highly susceptible to injuries. Blake has never missed a pro game due to an injury, even after he fractured his hand in mid-season in 2019. On this basis alone, Gutekunst better think long and hard before he jettisons Martinez.
From all the chatter, you’d think Blake was an inferior athlete, and that he must have tortoise-like speed. Not sure of what I’d find, I did some NFL Combine searching.
Bobby Wagner, with his 4.46 dash time is in a league by himself. He would indeed be an upgrade, but the Packers won’t be getting him – in July he signed a 3-year $54M contract extension, making him the highest paid ILB in the league.
With Kuechly out of the picture, here are the dash times of the other top NFL tacklers: Hicks 4.68; Leonard 4.70; Martinez 4.71; Schobert 4.74; and Brown 4.86. At the 2016 NFL Combine, Blake’s dash time put him in the 65th percentile among ILBs. His 10-yard split, which is probably more meaningful, was 69th percentile. His agility scores (3-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle) were in the 75th and 77th percentiles.
Rather than being inferior times, these number are well above average – and Blake, who just turned 26 in January, is just entering his peak performance years.
Sure I wish Blake was faster. And yes, I’ll grant you that his biggest weakness is pass protection. In fact, I think it’s unwise to have Blake out there on obvious passing downs. And yet he gets 99 percent of the defensive snaps, game after game and year after year. Let’s play to players’ strengths, not to their weaknesses. I’m in favor of Blake being (somewhat) platooned. It’s none other than Mike Pettine who talks about putting players in positions in which they are likely to have success.
The 2020 Draft
Rather than trying to research what ILB prospects there will be in the upcoming draft, and in which rounds, I’ll just fall back on GM Gutekunst’s foray in the 2018 draft. He selected Oren Burks in the third round, the 88th overall pick. Gutekunst viewed Burks as the perfect hybrid player who could defend the pass as well as he could stop the run. Gutekunst probably viewed Burks as an eventual upgrade to Martinez.
How has that worked out? In his second year, Burks was in on a total of 57 defensive snaps. In the postseason loss to the 49ers, Burks got no recorded stats in his three defensive plays. I hope that the Burks decision will be on Gutekunst’s mind when the draft is held in April. And even if the GM has his eyes on some new and promising ILB prospect, he’s bound to wonder how many years it might take for that player to become a force in the NFL. Re-signing a proven four-year vet poses no risk.
Who in the upcoming free agency pool would be an upgrade to Blake?
Well, nfltraderumors.com has only one ILB on its fifty top free agents list: Cory Littleton (LAR) is ranked 35th overall (regarless of position). Despite Cory going undrafted in 2016, I’m pretty impressed with his stats: 125 and 134 tackles in the last two years – though these are the only years he’s been a regular starter. He’s very similar to Blake in size, age, speed (4.73), and health. His career numbers, 26 passes defended, 6 interceptions, and 8.5 sacks, show some versatility, but aren’t eye-popping.
Bottom line: would a player like Littleton be an upgrade, and even if you think the two are roughly equivalent, would it justify parting ways with a guy who’s been an integral part of Pettine’s defense, and its defensive play-caller, for the last two years? We ought to have two legit ILBs on the field, – at least when we play teams like the Niners – why not try to have both Martinez and Littleton on the roster?
If there’s a more promising ILB scheduled to become a free agent, who would it be, and what would be the cost of getting him? I’ll be interested to see how much money Schobert and Martinez sign for in 2020. Martinez might well prove to be one of the biggest financial bargains in this draft.
The twin trouncings by the 49ers demonstrate that the Packers need a better run-stopping game plan and more and better run-stopping personnel. Isn’t it counterintuitive to want to get rid of the league’s most prolific tackler at such a time? My intuition is that we should try to find us the best possible ILB prospect, and have him play alongside Martinez in 2020. We usually need two true ILBs on the field, whereas we used only one for most of 2019. That’s an experiment that Pettine might want to abandon.
In 2016, Ted Thompson let Casey Hayward go. In 2017 he let Micah Hyde get away. In 2018, Gutekunst pulled the plug on Morgan Burnett. These were among the team’s surest tacklers – and they’ve all proved to have plenty of good years left in them. Will history repeat itself in 2020?
Does anyone on the Packers roster have a finer character than the former Stanford star? Is anyone a better and more selfless teammate? A natural leader? Smarter? One who’s been absolutely loyal to his team? Maybe such qualities should be viewed as essentials, not intangibles.
Gutekunst has been pretty quiet about his assessment of Martinez. I’m inclined to believe that when he sits down and factors everything in, he’ll want to retain Martinez on the roster. That doesn’t mean it will happen, however. Green Bay currently has a cap space of $29 million, a little under the average among NFL teams. If a team like the Bucs ($92M), Colts ($87M), or Dolphins ($87M) gets a hankering for Blake Martinez, then this whole topic becomes merely academic.