GREEN BAY — As he slogged through his rehabilitation day after day while seemingly holding out hope for being ready for the start of the regular season, David Bakhtiari remained upbeat. He joked with teammates and reporters alike, all the while insisting he wasn’t putting any hard-and-fast timeline on his return to action.
And whenever the Green Bay Packers five-time All-Pro left tackle was asked about third-year offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins, his likely fill-in if he wasn’t cleared in time for the season opener, Bakhtiari was always effusive in his praise. As Jenkins’ mentor and biggest fan, that was no surprise.
But when asked if Jenkins could be the second-best left tackle in the league after him, Bakhtiari chuckled, then hedged.
“I’ve got to see more of him play, to be honest. I think that’s fairness of Elgton, and that’s fairness of the other guys in the league,” Bakhtiari replied. “I think he’s a really good player. I don’t think that that’s fair to answer right now. But maybe, if it does happen (and) he’s playing left tackle, you can come ask me that then and I’ll have a better idea.”
Well, Bakhtiari and the Packers are about to find out after the team placed Bakhtiari on the in-season physically unable to perform list as he continues his comeback from the torn ACL he suffered in his left knee during a Dec. 31 practice late last season.
The Packers are slated to open the season on Sept. 12 against the New Orleans Saints. That game was scheduled to be played at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans but now will have to find an alternate location because of the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.
The move came exactly eight months after the injury and was hardly a surprise given the timeline. Still, it means the absolute earliest Bakhtiari could return to action would be the Packers’ Week 7 game on Oct. 24 at Lambeau Field — and that would mean Bakhtiari would be game-ready after only one week of practice, since players on the PUP list are eligible to work out and do conditioning while sidelined but cannot take part in practices until they pass a physical and are cleared for action.
Coach Matt LaFleur had hinted at the possibility on Sunday, saying, “We’re going to do what’s best for David and this football team.” Team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie and the team’s personnel department have historically erred on the side of caution with players coming off season-ending, significant injuries. Bakhtiari, who signed a four-year, $92 million extension last November, is a cornerstone player.
“I think it’s a fine line. That’s kind of what I figured out,” Bakhtiari said early in camp when asked about his rehabilitation schedule and hopes of being ready for the opener. “I hadn’t really had any big injuries. This is definitely my biggest injury.
“We’re going to have open communication the entire way, see how I feel and once we all feel comfortable with where I’m at and when I can go out there and play — not just football, but the brand of football I know and everyone else does — I think that’s where we’ll be in a good spot.”
Without Bakhtiari, Jenkins will start at left tackle while veteran Billy Turner, who struggled against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the Packers’ left tackle in their season-ending NFC Championship Game loss, will be back at his normal right tackle spot.
Rookie second-round pick Josh Myers is set to start at center in place of departed first-team All-Pro center Corey Linsley, who went to the Los Angeles Chargers as a free agent in March, while the starters at guard are unclear. Rookie fourth-round pick Royce Newman appears to have won the right guard job, while the starting left guard will likely be either veteran Lucas Patrick, a 15-game starter at right guard a year ago, or second-year man Jon Runyan.
The Packers think the world of Jenkins, their 2019 second-round pick who played four of the five positions on the line last season and earned his first Pro Bowl nod at left guard. Offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said earlier in camp Jenkins could be a top-flight left tackle on another team without one already on the roster.
“He’d be great. I think he’d do a really good job. I think he could play all five spots and play at a Pro Bowl-caliber level. That’s how talented he is,” Stenavich said. “I think most teams would love to have him as their left tackle.”
As soon as the Packers moved on from veteran swing tackle Rick Wagner, a former University of Wisconsin lineman, in March, Stenavich started planning for Jenkins to fill the void left by Bakhtiari’s injury. Now, that Plan B will be the primary approach for at least the first six weeks of the season.
“I felt pretty comfortable about it, especially since last year he played a significant amount of tackle reps and at the time,” Stenavich said. “Once David was hurt and Rick was gone, we really didn’t have any other option for an established guy to go out there and play left tackle other than moving Billy over there. I felt pretty good about it.”
There has been some hope among the Packers’ staff that Bakhtiari might be able to play earlier than the PUP would allow, but that would have meant carrying him on the 53-man roster and making him a game-day inactive each week. Bakhtiari was not eligible for the short-term injured reserve list because his injury is a preexisting one from last season, which is why he had not yet passed his physical to begin practicing during training camp. Players cannot go from the PUP list to the roster to IR in one cycle for the same injury.
As a result, Bakhtiari will be in mentor mode for potentially half the season.
“I really have a lot of respect for Elgton. I think he’s a great player. I think he has even more to give, even more than I think he even knows,” Bakhtiari said earlier in camp. “And I’ve told him this and I’ll tell you guys (also): My goal is to make sure he can become the best Elgton Jenkins he can be.
“He can be something special. He’s an awesome player, great person in the offensive line room, great person in the locker room. And I think one thing that kind of goes unnoticed with him is also his attitude. He’s a dog, straight up.”
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Check out photo galleries from every game of 2021 from the preseason through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
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