Green Bay Packers tackle David Bakhtiari during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field, Tuesday, August 6, 2013. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
Though Bryan Bulaga is keeping open the door a sliver for playing this season on a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Green Bay Packers are deep into their plans for playing rookie David Bakhtiari in his place at left tackle in 2013.
The season-ending nature of Bulaga’s injury has been especially difficult for him to accept because, as coach Mike McCarthy described Tuesday, Bulaga is able to walk around the team’s facilities like nothing is wrong with his leg.
But it’s extremely rare for an NFL player to play on a partially torn ACL, and the Packers all but acknowledged Tuesday that Bulaga won’t play this year.
“There's nothing wrong with hoping for a miracle,” general manager Ted Thompson said.
Perhaps Bulaga is looking to New England guard Logan Mankins, who last year injured a knee in the regular season opener, felt good enough that he never had an MRI scan, and played through the playoffs. Only on an MRI after the season did doctors discover he had torn his ACL and perform reconstructive surgery.
Similarly, Bulaga was able to play all the snaps with the Packers’ No. 1 offensive line after he injured a knee on the seventh play of the Family Night scrimmage Saturday. Bulaga also was walking fine when he left the field after the scrimmage. But the Packers’ medical staff examined him Saturday night, then again Sunday, and has recommended surgery.
Bulaga asked for a second opinion and had his MRI sent to Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala. Bulaga apparently has heard Andrews’ opinion, and now the Packers are waiting for Bulaga to decide whether to have surgery, though the decision appears foregone.
“Bryan fully understands what it would take for him to play this year,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Said guard Josh Sitton: “If he does try to (play)? I would think he’s stupid. He’s got a career to worry about. It’s not just about this year when you have something like that, so it would be dumb.”
Daniel Kharrazi, an orthopedic surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in California and team physician for the Los Angeles Lakers, said a small percentage of partial ACL tears are minute enough that they accumulate scar tissue and don’t require surgery.
But Kharrazi said that if a physical exam reveals laxity in the knee or an MRI shows a tear in the ACL, then an NFL player would be taking a huge risk that the ACL would tear completely and severely damage cartilage in the knee. That would compound recovery from reconstruction surgery and likely lead to arthritis down the road.
Even though Bulaga feels fine, it appears the Packers’ medical staff either found laxity or saw a tear on Bulaga’s MRI, or both.
“Could he have had a partial ACL tear and potentially strengthen his leg and try the brace and continue to play?” Karrazi said. “Yeah, that’s a possibility. But in today’s NFL, with an ACL injury, especially at the tackle position, it would be incredibly difficult to manage that.
“The general rule of thumb is, when there’s laxity on the exam, when there’s a positive MRI finding, that should be fixed, especially on an elite athlete.”
With Bulaga almost assuredly out, McCarthy is looking first at the rookie Bakhtiari at left tackle rather than Marshall Newhouse, who started at left tackle the last two seasons before moving to the right side in May.
Bakhtiari, a fourth-round draft pick, has been something of a revelation in training camp. He’s stood out since the team put on pads 1½ weeks ago and was on his way to possibly beating out Newhouse for the starting job at right tackle before Bulaga’s injury. Bakhtiari played left tackle his final two seasons in college at Colorado.
“(Bakhtiari) definitely has the ability,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s shown that, particularly in the spring. I have no question about his skill set. He’s very smart. I think he has one mental error in all of training camp. Going through eight installation practices, that’s extremely — that’s really good for an offensive lineman, particularly with what he has to do. We’ll see what he can do.”
If Bakhtiari holds up at left tackle, Newhouse and Don Barclay will compete for the starting job on the right side. Barclay worked more at right tackle Tuesday than he had in recent practices, and McCarthy suggested that the second-year pro will practice mainly there and at guard for the time being. Up to now, the Packers appeared to be planning for Barclay to be their top backup at center, guard and right tackle.
“Don has been moved around a lot in what we feel is in the best interest for the development of our offensive line, the unit,” McCarthy said. “We need to probably look at maybe not moving him as much.”
Bakhtiari was a three-year starter at Colorado — he played right tackle his redshirt freshman season, then left tackle the next two years before entering the draft a year early. At 300 pounds he’s on the lighter side for an NFL tackle — Bulaga, for instance, is listed at 314, and Newhouse at 319. But Bakhtiari has enough athleticism and length to play the position at 6-4 ½ and with 34-inch arms, and he’s proven to be more physical and stout than many scouts projected going into the draft.
“(Bakhtiari) seems to win a lot of his blocks,” Sitton said. “He’s done really well in the one-on-one drills, which is really telling, because the defense has the advantage in that drill.”
Clay Matthews, the Packers’ Pro Bowl outside linebacker, worked out with Bakhtiari before last April’s draft. Matthews is friends with Bakhtiari’s brother Eric, who played defensive line in the NFL with Tennessee, San Francisco and Tennessee, and the three trained together in Southern California for a few weeks in the spring.
Matthews also has faced Bakhtiari occasionally in practice.
“The thing that impresses me most is (Bakhtiari’s) professionalism,” Matthews said. “I’m not just saying that as his friend. In this league it’s very difficult to not only start as a rookie but to make an impact. If (Bulaga is out), then that’s what we’re going to ask him to do.”
The Packers worked Bakhtiari extensively in practice Tuesday to accelerate his growth. He took all the snaps at left tackle with the No. 1 offensive line and played regularly with the No. 2 line as well.
“You never want to see a fellow teammate go down,” Bakhtiari said, “especially — you know, Bulaga is really good. But it’s a business and you’ve got to step up to the plate and given certain responsibilities — for me, they’ve given me certain responsibilities and something to take on, so I just have to do it.”
— pdougher@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.