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The New York Giants have been an active player in free agency during the 2020 offseason. Through the beginning of April, the team has thus far signed 11 free agents. However, the Giants only made big investments on two of these players: cornerback James Bradberry (who was signed to a 3-year, $43.5 million contract) and Blake Martinez (who was signed to a 3-year, $30.75 million contract). Both were the first two free agents the team signed. Given that fact and the money doled out, it is obvious that these two were high-priority targets for the franchise. Let me emphasize that point again, Bradberry and Martinez were THE major “gets” for General Manager Dave Gettleman and new Head Coach Joe Judge in free agency this offseason.
While media and fan reaction to the signing of Bradberry was largely positive, many were underwhelmed by the acquisition of Martinez. “Overrated”, “he can’t cover”, “too many of his tackles were downfield”, and “the Packers and their fans don’t seem to be upset that he’s gone” were commonly heard refrains. Right or wrong, the widely-held perception is that Martinez is a smart, quarterback-of-the-defense type who lacks ideal physicality and overall athleticism for the position.
However, upon closer inspection, some of these claims don’t seem to hold up. Martinez was not a two-down linebacker for the Packers. He played in 98.46 percent of all defensive snaps in 2019, third most on the team. In 2018, he played in 98.59 percent of all defensive snaps. In 2017, he played in 93.06 percent of all defensive snaps. These are absurdly high numbers for an inside linebacker. It means that Martinez doesn’t miss games. But it also means he rarely comes off of the field. For three straight years, Martinez has been the linebacker the Green Bay Packers coaching staff kept on the field in third-down situations.
Martinez strongly believes he is an asset on the field in coverage. “There were probably two times last year… (in) man coverage somebody that I made my own mental mistakes on… my coach last year, he (said) ‘Oh yeah, you’re one of the best, if not the best, zone coverage linebackers I’ve ever been around’. Being able to see the field, see crossing routes, being able to communicate, do all those types of things… I can go and cover tight ends, I can go and cover running backs, I can play in zones, I can do all of the things that you need to do as an inside linebacker.”
The tackles argument doesn’t seem to hold up either. In the last three years, Martinez has averaged 148 tackles per season, with an average of 95 of those being solo tackles. Again, these are exceptionally high numbers. And they are consistent (144, 144, 155). The tackle totals are not an anomaly. For the sake of comparison, Alec Ogletree (the player Martinez is replacing) averaged 89 tackles per season the past three years, with 56 of them being solo. That’s a 40 percent difference in production. The Giants cut Ogletree in late February and signed Martinez two weeks later. That’s no coincidence. The team sees this as a major upgrade.
Martinez also seems to chaff a bit at the notion that he can’t make plays in the hole against the run. “I think that’s the one misconception of me, I guess the public view,” said Martinez. “The way we ran the defense, at least the last two years, is I’m kind of put into the clean-up crew guy. There’s a lot of situations where you see numerous other defenses where… you have A-B gap responsibility as an inside linebacker, you have one-gap responsibility. In our defense no matter what it was, since I was the only linebacker on the field, I was taught and told once again, to be the clean up crew guy. There wasn’t any gap responsibilities for me… I know there’s been things like you make tackles down the field, you make tackles here, you make tackles there. For the majority of the time there that’s what I was told to do. It’s just me I guess doing my job in that sense. Going into this defense, once I learn being whatever it ends up being how we play. I hope I am able to trigger it, solo gaps, do those type of things and make those type of impact plays.”
The Giants new defensive coordinator, Patrick Graham, coached Martinez in 2018 as Green Bay’s linebacker coach and run-game coordinator. That season, Martinez compiled 144 tackles and five sacks. And Martinez is thrilled to be back with Graham.
“We had that year together and we became super close, he was my inside linebacker coach,” said Martinez. “For me, what made me so excited to work with him this year and the following years is how smart he is. I think he is probably the smartest coach I’ve ever been around. The preparation he puts in every week, his intensity, just how much he cares about the game of football. It just allowed me to go in every Sunday or Monday or Thursday games fully prepared. I never felt like I didn’t know what play was going to happen next.”
Martinez is still a young, rising player. He turned 26 in January. Though a tad undersized (6’2”, 237 pounds), he can play the run. He has led the entire NFL in tackles since 2017. While we still don’t know how much 3-4 versus 4-3 defense the Giants will play, it is clear that Graham sees Martinez as a three-down player who will direct his unit on the field. The Giants also have the big bodies up front to help keep blockers from getting clean shots on Martinez. This includes Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, B.J. Hill, and Austin Johnson.
If and when the Giants employ a base 3-4, Martinez’s inside flankmate is likely to be Ryan Connelly, who was extremely impressive starting three games before tearing his ACL. In reserve and serving as insurance is David Mayo, who the Giants re-signed to a 3-year, $8.4 million contract.
Outside, before the draft, the chief candidates at linebacker are Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines, and Martinez’s teammate and roommate in Green Bay, Kyler Fackrell.
“I’m thrilled,” said Fackrell. “We came into Green Bay together and we were roommates all four years of training camp and during rookie mini-camp. We have a good relationship and he’s a great player. I was really excited to hear that he was going to the Giants as well… He does a great job. At inside linebacker, a big part of their job is kind of controlling everything and making calls and all that. He does a great job of that. He’s very versatile as well. He can do a lot of different things. Blitzing, there’s a lot of different things we can do, especially in those third down packages with the two of us and kind of trying to confuse quarterbacks.”
Martinez is also thrilled. “We were both excited we are going to be teammates again,” said Martinez. “He’s an amazing player and I think there is a lot of things that he hasn’t been able to show because of certain kind of depth chart things, certain roles he was placed into. Obviously, he had a 10-sack season two years ago. This last year he was a role player that stepped in and did a lot of great things. I think he is one of the best zone coverage linebackers in the NFL in my opinion. What he has been able to do for us and what he’s been asked to do, he’s done a phenomenal job and I know he is going to be a great asset to this team and show people a lot of great things this year.”
The challenge for Judge, Graham, Martinez, Fackrell, and company is turn around a defense that, outside of 2016, has been a bottom dweller for years. Martinez believes he knows what Graham’s defense will be like. And he knows he will be the quarterback of the unit.
“I think it’s just the aggressive nature. Everyone working together, everyone on the same page, everyone communicating. Everyone is going to know exactly where to be and what to do on every given call. There’s not going to be much, if any, mental errors at all. I know he stressed that a bunch. I don’t know if it is going to be simple but it will be understood by all 11 that are out there. Overall, there is going to be a lot of freedom for me to make checks, make calls and adjustments on a given play pre-snap to give guys chances to make plays. There is going to be a lot of communication across the board. I think it is going to be an awesome defense and I’m just waiting to finally be able to get to learn and see what he has for us.”
— New York Giants (@Giants) April 7, 2020