GREEN BAY — Much of focus this offseason has been on the Green Bay Packers’ renovation project at outside linebacker — and with good reason, given the free agent additions of Za’Darius and Preston Smith, the selection of first-round pick Rashan Gary and the decision to move on from Clay Matthews and Nick Perry.
Even quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been touting what that threesome could do in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system.
“We brought in a couple of studs on the outside who look really good,” Rodgers observed toward the end of the offseason program. “And then the young kid, Gary, is explosive as well.”
But throughout the organized team activity practices and the team’s two minicamps, something else stood out even more to Rodgers: How much inside linebacker Blake Martinez has elevated his game in advance of his fourth season — a contract year for the 2016 fourth-round pick.
“They have a great quarterback of the defense in Blake Martinez,” Rodgers said of Martinez. “He really looks comfortable directing the whole thing.”
Pettine has long called Martinez’s role the “nerve center” of his defense, and while Pettine liked what he saw from Martinez last season in his first year running a new scheme, now the expectation is for Martinez to continue keeping the defense organized while also making more plays himself.
In 2017, having gotten more comfortable with a season’s experience in ex-defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme, Martinez started all 16 games and registered a team-high 158 tackles (tied for the league lead), a team-best 12 tackles for a loss, a sack, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, an interception, four QB pressures, four QB hits and 11 passes defensed (second-most on the team).
Last season, as he again adjusted to a new scheme, Martinez’s play-making numbers went down in some areas, but Pettine used him more as a pass rusher, and it paid dividends. Martinez again started all 16 games and finished with 147 tackles, a career-high five sacks (third-most on the team), eight QB pressures (but no additional QB hits), and 10 tackles for loss (also third on the team). He broke up four passes (a seven-breakup dip) and didn’t have a single turnover play (interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery).
“He does a really, really good job at running the defense. He gets us all lined up. Now, the next step for him is to be in front of every play, which he does a decent job of right now, but he can get better and better,” new inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said.
“He’s a guy who really wants to dig himself into it. He’s a football junkie and it’s fun to be around him because he wants to be a really good player and he never wants to be surprised on the football field. But he does understand every once in a while something is going to come up and you might have to hit your way out of a problem.
“I think it’s a progression always (the same). Your first year, you’re just trying to learn (the new) defense and the second year, you’ve learned your defense, now you’re trying to figure out exactly what is happening to you around there. Come your third year, that’s when you have a good feel for those two things and now that’s where you’re, ‘Shoot, I can really take a step and go.’ Blake needs to make the plays that Blake makes. That’s what we’re looking for from him.”
Here’s a closer look at the linebackers as the Packers prepare for training camp, which kicks off with its first practice on Thursday morning:
55 Za’Darius Smith: 6-foot-4, 272 pounds, age 26, fifth year from Kentucky.
42 Oren Burks: 6-3, 233, 24, second year from Vanderbilt.
50 Blake Martinez: 6-2, 237, 25, fourth year from Stanford.
91 Preston Smith: 6-5, 265, 26, fifth year from Mississippi State.
51 Kyler Fackrell: 6-5, 245, 27, fourth year from Utah State.
52 Rashan Gary: 6-5, 277, 21, first year from Michigan.
93 Reggie Gilbert: 6-3, 261, 26, second year from Arizona.
53 Kendall Donnerson: 6-3, 249, 23, first year from SE Missouri State.
54 James Crawford: 6-2, 239, 24, second year from Illinois.
44 Ty Summers: 6-1, 241, 23, rookie from TCU.
58 Brady Sheldon: 6-5, 231, 26, first year from Ferris State.
57 Greg Roberts: 6-5, 258, 23, rookie from Baylor.
56 Randy Ramsey: 6-3, 238, 23, rookie from Arkansas.
40 Curtis Bolton: 6-0, 228, 23, rookie from Oklahoma.
Will the outside linebacker investments pay big dividends?
Talk about an extreme makeover. Gone are Matthews, the Packers’ all-time leader in sacks who signed with the Los Angeles Rams as a free agent after the Packers made no effort to re-sign him, and Perry, the team’s 2012 first-round pick who was released when the two Smiths were brought aboard. A little over a month after the Smith signings, general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted Gary at No. 12 overall, and — voilà! — the transformation was complete.
Now it’s time for them to deliver.
“I told Gutey that it’s apparent he doesn’t think we’re very good coaches, he needed to load the room up with some talent,’” Pettine joked. “No ... Gutey and I met right at the end of the season, and we were very much on the same page with what needed to be done moving forward.”
The idea behind adding three edge players who aren’t vastly different body types — but have varying skill sets — was simple: Pettine wants his rushers to be versatile, and interchangeable. Both Za’Darius Smith, who did it with the Baltimore Ravens, and Gary, who did it in college last year at Michigan, can line up inside with a hand on the ground. Pettine described Preston Smith as more of a deft, finesse player because he can drop into coverage, while Za’Darius Smith is more of a power rusher and Gary has rare athletic skills for a guy his size.
Add Fackrell into the mix and you have your four best pass-rushers all on the field simultaneously.
“What I like about the room is that it’s not all the same guy,” Pettine said. “We’re obviously very encouraged about that room and what they’re going to be able to do for us. This is a size and speed league. And you look at teams that play similar to what we do, (and you’ll see they) have a lot of five-man fronts and the edges are standing up. (So) big, explosive guys there is the way to go. But they’ve still got to be able to win rushing the passer. I’m used to having guys like that if you look at other places that I’ve been.”
On the rise
When a team pays a player the kind of money the Packers paid Smith (four years, $66 million), that comes with high expectations — and Smith understands that. His deal is paying him roughly $34 million over the first two years, and with a guy who had 18½ sacks in four seasons in Baltimore — including a career-best 8½ last year — the Packers are betting that his field-tilting days are ahead of him now that he’s out of the shadow of Terrell Suggs and the Ravens’ other better-known pass rushers.
“Za’Darius is more of a power-type rusher and also has the flexibility, you can move him around. If you looked at how the Ravens used him, it will be very similar,” Pettine said. “He can go down and rush over a guard, he can rush over a center. So you can have that based on matchups.”
Player to watch
A fluke? Or a harbinger of more good things to come? It’s hard to know what to make of Fackrell’s out-of-the-blue 10.5-sack season last year, especially considering he only had three other pressures and one other quarterback hit while playing in all 16 games. But if Fackrell is what his numbers say he is — an upper-echelon pass-rusher, since his 10.5 sacks tied him for 17th in the NFL, ahead of better-known names like Jadeveon Clowney and Geno Atkins — then the Packers should benefit. Especially since Fackrell is in a contract year.
“Kyler obviously had a good year last year and was very productive,” Pettine said. “It’s nice to see him just working with (outside linebackers coach) Mike Smith. Mike’s one of the experts in the game as far as studying offensive linemen and having a game plan to attack a blocker. It’s a lot of detail and I think that Kyler will respond well to that.”
Inside linebacker/sub packages
Throughout the offseason, Burks got the lion’s share of the snaps alongside Martinez when the Packers lined up in their base defense, and interestingly enough, Pettine kept both Burks and Martinez on the field for many of the nickel packages he ran, sending off one defensive lineman and keeping Burks on the field instead of bringing in another defensive back as he frequently did last season. That could be a sign that Burks, after fading out of the rotation down the stretch last season, has taken a significant jump and will have a greater role in his second NFL season.
To be sure, Pettine said the Packers must be nimble enough to change their approach as offensive trends change. But he pointed to what the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots did offensively last year, using less of the spread offense that has been en vogue in the NFL in recent years. Against teams like that, more linebackers and fewer defensive backs are needed.
In Burks, who started his college career at Vanderbilt at safety, Pettine is hoping he has a guy who can do it all.
“Look at New England’s success last year. The league had really started to trend toward more of the spread offenses, and it was a lot more three wide receivers. They started to kind of push back the other way,” Pettine explained. “It was a lot of two-back runs.
“You have to have the ability defensively to defend all of it. Ultimately, it’s to defend the pass. If you can get the best of both worlds and have your second ‘backer be a safety or have some safety in his background, I think that’s ideal. But there’s still going to be times in this league where you’re going to have the line up and defense the iso, defend the two-back power, where you’re going to have to have some guys who are more actual inside linebackers.”