You can be sure whenever the Giants line up and play defense, Blake Martinez will don the helmet with the green dot affixed to the back of it. When it comes time for the Giants to stop someone, it will be Martinez relaying to his teammates what defensive coordinator Patrick Graham wants run each and every snap.
There is no debate on Martinez’s qualifications in this regard. He wore the communication helmet in 2017 when Dom Capers called the shots in Green Bay and continued to wear the special helmet the past two years when Mike Pettine took over. This is one of the primary reasons the Giants struck quickly in free agency, agreeing to terms with Martinez on a three-year deal worth $30 million. The 26-year old middle linebacker arrives with leadership traits and football intelligence no one can deny.
But what else are the Giants getting with Martinez? Here is where the road diverges a bit.
The common description of an inside linebacker as a “tackling machine’’ applies here, as Martinez since 2017 has amassed 144, 144 and last year’s career-high 155 combined tackles. In that span, his 444 combined tackles is slightly higher than the 430 put up by Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks star selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the past six seasons.
Martinez in his three years as a starter has never gained Pro Bowl honors, meaning tackle totals alone are not the ticket required to gain admission to elite status.
The analytics of Pro Football Focus graded Wagner as the 11th-best linebacker in 2019. Martinez was No. 52, behind other free agents this year such as Cory Littleton (No. 8), Nick Kwiatkoski (15), Jamie Collins (16) and Joe Schobert (48). David Mayo, picked up by the Giants in 2019, ended up starting 13 games and the number-crunchers at PFF liked that they saw, grading Mayo as the 14th-most effective linebacker in the league. The Giants kept Mayo, re-signing him to a three-year, $8.4 million contract.
So, what do the Giants see in Martinez that others do not?
Well, Martinez had his best season in 2018, when his position coach with the Packers was Graham, and Martinez, in addition to all the tackles, had a career-high five sacks. The Giants are under no illusion that Martinez is a superior athlete or a dynamic player and they realize the “splash’’ play totals in his four-year career — tackles for loss (29), interceptions (three), forced fumbles (two) — are not anything special at all.
There are some more detailed analytics that suggest Martinez grades out higher in terms of linking his tackles based on where they come at the line of scrimmage. The knock on him in Green Bay was that too many of his tackles came after the running back already gained 5 or 6 yards, one reason why the Packers allowed 120.1 rushing yards per game, 23rd in the league (the Giants were 20th at 113.2 yards per game).
Is this all the fault of Martinez? Of course not. The design of the Packers defense was often a 3-3-5 setup with only one inside linebacker, preferring to give up small bites of yards on the ground rather than a big chunk through the air. The Packers last season signed Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, defensive players more interested in rushing the passer than stopping the run. Plus, nose tackle Kenny Clark had more than one eye on the quarterback and wanted to penetrate the pocket, rather than stay at home and occupy blockers against the run.
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Scheme and personnel matter and the Giants believe they can support Martinez more keenly than the Packers did, protecting him by cleaning up much of the traffic in front of Martinez, allowing him to make more impactful plays closer to the line of scrimmage. If the Giants have a strength on defense, it is the interior of their line, with Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson and Leonard Williams all above-average run-stoppers and none of them older than 25 years old. Martinez is only 26 and the Giants think they could have a solid front group to stop the run for years to come.
The Patriots were often able to take slightly undersized and perhaps step-slow linebackers and turn them into effective starters based on what the entire defense did to augment talent and hide deficiencies. Graham will run the defensive show for new head coach Joe Judge, another former Bill Belichick assistant, and the Patriots Way, in some respects, will be coming to the Giants. Blake Martinez is an example of this.