“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is an old proverb that GM Brian Gutekunst obviously took to heart in April’s draft. Only two years after trading up for inside linebacker Oren Burks, he picked an almost identical player in Kamal Martin.
Both players are listed at 6-foot-3. Both players were used extensively in coverage early in their college careers. Burks lined up at safety as a freshman, and Martin played extensively in the slot as a sophomore. Both run well. Burks was timed at 4.59, and while Martin didn’t run an official 40 before the draft, he appears to have similar speed. The Packers can only hope that’s where the similarities end. Burks has been a huge disappointment after two seasons. He’s missed six games due to assorted injuries, and even when healthy, he couldn’t unseat journeymen Antonio Morrison and B.J. Goodson. That’s why Gutekunst grabbed Martin in the fifth round, and it’s why he has a chance to win the starting job next to Christian Kirksey.
So what are the Packers getting in Martin? I watched six games from the past two seasons, and here’s what I saw:
Martin is over 240 pounds, but he looks and plays smaller against the run. Much like Burks and former Packer Blake Martinez, he has a difficult time disengaging from blocks. He appears to lack strength and is not a drive-through tackler. He spends way too much time looking for a backside angle to lasso the ballcarrier. This leads to a lot of tackles six or seven yards past the line of scrimmage. And even when he’s in position to make a play at or near the line of scrimmage, he is maddeningly inconsistent when it comes to tackling. Here are a couple of plays from a game last season against Fresno State. Martin is wearing #21.
Like many inside linebackers who rely on quickness rather than brute strength, Martin is at his best when he gets protected by the D-line and has a direct path to the ball. That’s when his understanding of angles and good closing burst make him effective. Here’s another play against Fresno State and one against Nebraska.
It’s really hard to figure out why Gutekunst keeps drafting finesse-type inside linebackers and yet refuses to add massive run-stuffing defensive linemen to the roster. Players like Burks, Martinez, and Martin will never be good enough versus the run playing behind ends like Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, and Kingsley Keke.
While Martin probably won’t make the defense much better on early downs, he might be able to help a bit in certain sub-packages. He wasn’t asked to cover man-to-man too often in college, and there’s a good reason why. He runs well in a straight line, but he’s a little stiff and tends to lose a step trying to keep up with tight ends. In this play, Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins has little trouble getting open in a game from last season.
Martin is most effective the closer he is to the line of scrimmage. He shows both good awareness in reading the quarterback and anticipating throws. This, combined with the closing burst I mentioned earlier, allows him to get to the receiver in a hurry and keep yards after the catch to a minimum. Here’s another play against Nebraska and one against New Mexico State in a game from early in the 2018 season.
Despite beginning his career at Minnesota as a pass-rushing defensive end, getting to the quarterback is not one of Martin’s strengths. He’s bigger and faster than Martinez, but he just doesn’t have the same instincts. He’s too often late to arrive on the blitz and does not time it up very well. Perhaps this part of his game will improve with more experience and pro coaching. Here’s a play against Fresno State that ends typically.
OVERALL ANALYSIS – To be honest, Martin looks exactly like the kind of player who gets drafted late in the fifth round. By that, I mean his production never matched his talent in college. And while it’s fair to point out that he didn’t start playing inside linebacker until his junior year, it’s also fair to point out that the majority of the offensive linemen, running backs and tight ends he faced on Saturdays won’t be playing on Sundays.
I was extremely disappointed in Burks’ college tape and immediately worried that Gutekunst made a mistake by trading up and drafting him in the third round. I’m not as concerned about Martin. For one thing, his tape is better. But more importantly, he was a fifth-round pick. At that point in the draft, a GM can’t realistically expect to find a quality starting inside linebacker. In fact, since 2015, not one of the inside linebackers voted to the Pro Bowl was drafted after the second round. But a GM can hope to find a useful backup who can contribute on special teams, and that’s exactly what the Packers seem to have in Martin.