GREEN BAY — When he wasn’t slamming beers at Fiserv Forum to get Milwaukee Bucks fans fired up during the team’s playoff run, David Bakhtiari was intense about something else this offseason: rehabilitation from the torn ACL he suffered in his left knee during a New Year’s Eve practice late last season.
And so, Bakhtiari was asked following one of those rehab workouts during the Green Bay Packers’ offseason program, would he be ready for the start of training camp?
“I’ve got no problem saying I will 100% be ready for the start of training camp …,” Bakhtiari replied, pausing for effect, “… in 2022.”
Indeed, Bakhtiari is not expected to be on the practice field on Wednesday when the team has its first full-squad practice of camp. He figures to be continuing his rehab work, just as he was during the offseason organized team activity practices and mandatory minicamp, which he spent alongside fellow ACL Recovery Club member Josiah Deguara and athletic trainer Nate Weir, the team’s coordinator of rehabilitation.
Whether or not the Packers five-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler is ready for the team’s Sept. 12 regular-season opener is another matter. That’s certainly the hope, but not even Bakhtiari himself knows right now.
“This is my first time going through this, so I’m just going to attack every day, try to hit every benchmark I can,” Bakhtiari said. “And once ‘Doc’ (team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie) can check me off, I can check myself and I can go out there and not only perform and protect myself but perform at the level that the Packers need me to, I think that’s where you’ll see me return, on that date.”
Until then, the Packers will have to experiment with a host of left tackle alternatives while also hoping that rookie second-round pick Josh Myers can step into the starting center role as planned and while sorting out a depth chart that is long on youth and short on experience behind the starting crew.
Last year, the line’s versatility was a lifesaver for the No. 1 scoring offense in the league. Veteran Billy Turner bounced around from right tackle to left tackle to guard and now third-year rising star Elgton Jenkins saw action at four of the five positions on the line to become the first NFL player in at least 50 years to start games at guard, tackle and center in the same season.
That said, Bakhtiari was sorely missed in the team’s season-ending NFC Championship Game loss to the eventual Super Bowl LV-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an out-of-position Turner at left tackle and since-departed veteran Ricky Wagner at right tackle struggled to protect Rodgers against the Bucs’ pass rush. If Bakhtiari had been healthy, it might’ve been the Packers holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy aloft at season’s end.
Instead, with Wagner having been released and a group of youngsters in the mix — including rookie fifth-round pick Cole Van Lanen, who like Wagner is a former University of Wisconsin standout — the Packers will go through camp sifting through their young depth and hope they won’t need to find a regular-season fill-in for Bakhtiari.
“I’m just trying to get guys exposed to as many different things as possible just to keep them thinking, make them see the game from difficult angles whether it’s guard, tackle, center, left side, right side, just trying to expose them to a lot of things,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich explained. “Then, once camp rolls around, you can kind of sharpen it down and say, ‘OK, now you focus on these two positions,’ or, ‘I think you’re going to be a swing guy that’s going to compete,’ and make sure you get them reps at all the different areas you think they’re going to compete at.”
Here’s a closer look at the offensive line as the Packers prepare for training camp, which is set to kick off with the first full-squad practice next Wednesday.
69 David Bakhtiari: left tackle, 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, 29 years old, ninth year from Colorado.
74 Elgton Jenkins: left guard, 6-5, 311, 25, third year from Mississippi State.
71 Josh Myers: center, 6-5, 310, 23, rookie from Ohio State.
62 Lucas Patrick: right guard, 6-3, 313, 27, fifth year from Duke.
77 Billy Turner: right tackle, 6-5, 310, 29, eighth year from North Dakota State.
76 Jon Runyan: guard, 6-4, 307, 23, second year from Michigan.
72 Simon Stepaniak: guard, 6-4, 316, 24, first year from Indiana.
73 Yosh Nijman: tackle, 6-7, 314, 25, second year from Virginia Tech.
64 Ben Braden: guard/tackle, 6-6, 329, 27, second year from Michigan.
67 Jake Hanson: center, 6-4, 296, 24, first year from Oregon.
70 Royce Newman: tackle/guard, 6-5, 310, 23, rookie from Mississippi.
78 Cole Van Lanen: tackle/guard, 6-4, 305, 23, rookie from Wisconsin.
68 Zack Johnson: guard, 6-6, 301, 24, first year from North Dakota State.
65 Coy Cronk: guard/tackle, 6-4, 318, 23, rookie from Iowa.
61 Jon Dietzen: tackle/guard, 6-5, 312, 24, rookie from Wisconsin.
60 Jacob Capra: guard-tackle, 6-5, 300, 22, rookie from San Diego State.
Will Jenkins stay put?
Jenkins himself can’t say for sure which position is his best — he prides himself on versatility that allowed him to see action across the offensive last season. His unique do-it-all talent means he could start at left tackle if Bakhtiari’s not ready for opening day, or he could take over at center if Myers isn’t quite ready for prime time, or he could play right tackle if the Packers want to play Turner on the left side while Bakhtiari recovers. Wherever he lines up, know this: The dude is a stud.
“He’s a rare guy in this league, a guy that has the athleticism to play on the edge,” Stenavich explained. “Usually, you get your centers and guards, they don’t have that combination of length and athleticism to go out at tackle and compete with the good edge rushers out there. But Elgton has those tools. He has the size, he’s got the length. So he’s a very versatile guy, a very intelligent player. You can move him around and the game’s not too big for him. He understands everything. Extremely football smart. Moving him out to tackle, it might not be his absolute best position, but he’s still a very, very good tackle.”
On the rise
Myers looked up to Linsley, who played the same position and wore the same jersey number at Ohio State. The Packers can only hope Myers can hit the ground running the way Linsley did as a rookie fifth-round pick in 2014, developing into one of the offense’s leaders and a premier lineman. There were growing pains for him, and there will be for Myers, too. But Myers seems to have another thing in common with Linsley: an even-keeled, wise-beyond-his-years personality.
Of course, there’s one way Myers is different: He stands 6-5, while Linsley is listed by his new team, the Los Angeles Chargers, as 6-3.
“I think my first couple steps are what separate me as a bigger center,” Myers explained. “Short-area quickness is a really important thing for a center. I think that taller guys can lack that at times. That’s something that I worked on and put a ton of effort and focus and energy into when I made the move to center. I always felt like that was one of the biggest things that allowed me to succeed at the position while being the size that I am.”
Player to watch
If quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ discontent is the top storyline of training camp, then Bakhtiari’s battle back from that torn ACL is next in line, even ahead of a new defensive coordinator (Joe Barry) and new scheme on that side of the ball. And while the Packers insist that they won’t rush their franchise left tackle back into action, the bottom line is that there’s no one on the roster who can truly, adequately fill in for him for an extended period.
“I know Dave, just talking to him throughout the offseason, he’s doing everything in his power to get back as soon as possible,” Stenavich said. “But for me, an NFL season’s an extremely long season, so the worst thing you can do is rush a guy back and bring him back too soon where he’s not playing at a high level or he hurts himself or anything like that.
“I think Dave’s got a good plan with our trainers and for me, I’m not really expecting him back at a certain date or anything like that. I know he’s going to be back as soon as he can be, and yeah, (it was great) watching him work out. … But it’s just (important to) be patient.”
Who’s next up inside?
After largely eschewing offensive linemen in his first two drafts as general manager, Brian Gutekunst has now added three linemen in each of the past two drafts. That’s a six-player haul at the position that should create incredible competition (especially at guard) and provide desperately needed depth (which was tested last year).
Of the 2020 class, Runyan saw spot action as a rookie while Gutekunst took Stepaniak knowing Stepaniak would need essentially a medical redshirt year after a torn ACL in his final college game. Meanwhile, Newman has positional flexibility while Van Lanen is more than just a cute local-boy-makes-good story. And don’t discount Braden, who got first-team reps during the offseason practices.
“I’m not a scout, I’m paid to be a football player, so my take on my other teammates is just I hope they come in with a good attitude, work hard, train hard in the weight room and show effort on the field,” Patrick said of the influx of young players. “You can tell guys are taking steps, you can tell they’re getting a better grasp of everything, but from an evaluation side, I just hope they have a good attitude and are ready to work every day.”