Packers OL overview: David Bakhtiari’s health and Elgton Jenkins’ return are key

The biggest storyline entering Packers training camp this year is the health of five-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who tore his left ACL in Week 17 of the 2020 season, re-injuring the knee in his first game back ( in Week 18 of the 2021 season), missed Green Bay’s only playoff game and did not practice this offseason.

Whether No. 69 is ready on July 27 for the first practice of camp will determine whether or not Packers fans officially hit the panic button for the franchise quarterback.

“We fully expect him to be ready to go, but we did last year,” head coach Matt LaFleur said June 14 before the team’s final voluntary OTAs open to reporters. “So I think time will tell, but we feel good about the work he’s put in and where he’s at.”

Bakhtiari’s health is even more important entering this season, as the Packers could be without Elgton Jenkins, their second-best offensive player — or perhaps their best at this point — for the first half of the season. while he rehabbed the season-ending knee injury he suffered in Week 11 last November. Dealing with injuries is nothing new for the Packers offensive line in recent years. They had to deal with the absences of not only Bakhtiari and Jenkins, but former and current offensive line starters Corey Linsley, Lane Taylor, Billy Turner, Josh Meyers and others.

The ideal starting five for the Packers ahead of Aaron Rodgers to start the season is Bakhtiari at left tackle, John Runyan Jr. at left guard, Meyers at center, Royce Newman at right guard and Josh Niemann at right tackle, unless one of their draft picks ( like Sean Ryan or Zach Thome) impress enough in training camp to fill Newman’s spot at right guard or at right tackle. Niemann impressed at left tackle last season and played there again during the offseason in Bakhtiari’s absence, but the Packers still don’t know if he can seamlessly transition to right tackle in games that count.

“I played right tackle at Virginia Tech my senior year (in 2018), so I have some comfort there,” Nieman said. “I’m trying to be just as good at playing both (right tackle and left tackle), to be honest. I don’t really have a preference.”

Barring injuries elsewhere, Jenkins will likely play either right tackle or left guard when he returns. If LaFleur’s “always play the best five” mentality on the offensive line is to be believed, that would likely mean Jenkins sliding to the right and Runyan staying to the left. Runyan played 1,053 offensive snaps last season (94.35 percent), second on the team to Newman’s 1,084 (97.13 percent). The Packers clearly trust him, and an upgrade from Nijman to Jenkins at right tackle with Runyan still at left guard could be more valuable to the Packers than a jump from Runyan to Jenkins at left guard with Nieman still at right tackle.

Myers played just a third of his rookie season due to knee and finger injuries, but he didn’t allow a sack in six games and surrendered just one quarterback hit, according to Pro Football Focus. Runyan tied for 121st in the NFL in quarterback pressures allowed (18) and had 78 players play fewer snaps but allow more pressures. Newman had a rough rookie season, but improved late after then-offensive line coach Adam Stanavich called Newman’s play “inconsistent” in mid-November, and he finished with 30 pressures and six sacks allowed. Nieman struggled at times on the edge — he allowed 19 pressures on 573 offensive snaps, per PFF — but the Packers were largely happy with how he handled the water in place of two of the best offensive linemen in the game, Bakhtiari and Jenkins.

As much as the Packers need a healthy Bakhtiari and Jenkins, they need continued improvement from their young returning offensive linemen, who will likely start Week 1 to help their 38-year-old starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, stand up until getting old

“I think it’s looking pretty good right now,” Rodgers said of the offensive line. “You get 69 and Elgton back, that’s a really good offensive line. So we feel good about that. Royce looks heavier. He might not look the same getting out of the shower in front of his girlfriend as he did last year. I feel like his belly has gotten a little bigger, but that might make him a better right guard. And he played a ton of football for us. We’ve got some young kids in the mix, but I like where the line is.”

If there’s a team that knows the value of healthy offensive line depth to protect against injuries, it’s the Packers. General manager Brian Gutekunst selected three offensive players for the third straight year; this time it was UCLA guard/tackle Ryan in the third round, Wake Forest lineman Thome in the fourth and Penn State tackle Rasheed Walker in the seventh.

After releasing Turner, losing Lucas Patrick in free agency to the Bears and leaving Dennis Kelly in free agency (he signed with the Colts), the Packers may have a rookie or two in their two-deep chart in Week 1, which makes it all the more important that new offensive line coach Luke Butkus prepares his versatile rookies appropriately without stretching them too far.

“You want to see how versatile they are playing different positions, but they have a lot on their plate,” Butkus said. “We like to cross-train, play different positions, so you try to be consistent with that, you know that, but at the same time, at the position they’re at and at the point in their career, they you have to be able to do a lot of things… I won’t talk about injuries, but they happen in this league. When they do, we better be ready.

(David Bakhtiari at left tackle photo: Scott Boehm/Associated Press)

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