Bakhtiari bulks up to build on rookie success
David Bakhtiari views his rookie season with the Green Bay Packers through a different prism than most onlookers.
Sure, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound tackle agrees with the consensus that he performed admirably in protecting the blindside of Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the Packers' carousel of quarterbacks after Bryan Bulaga's season-ending knee injury.
However, Bakhtiari offers one caveat for context — he was a rookie and played well for a rookie. In 2014, it's about playing well as a football player and surpassing increased expectations.
"I'm very critical of myself because my thought is the day I become complacent and think you're there, is the day I'll get fired and I'll be out of a job," Bakhtiari said. "You can give it everything you've got, but there's always more in the tank. For me to say it was fantastic and it was the best year, no. I think I could have even done better, just as a rookie. Overall, it was a good year for a rookie."
Bakhtiari's approach is reflected in the numbers. According to Pro Football Focus, he finished in the middle of the pack in pressures (39) and sacks (eight) allowed among qualifying tackles.
It could have been much worse. Bulaga's torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in August's Family Night scrimmage should have thrown the offensive line into a tailspin. Instead, Bakhtiari stepped in and rarely was noticed — a badge of honor for any left tackle.
His reliability has positioned him as the starting left tackle heading into training camp this month and has allowed Bulaga to slide back to right tackle, where he's started each of his 33 NFL games.
That confidence creates a new set of challenges for Bakhtiari, who added more muscle this offseason to help him make the next step. He won't disclose exactly how much he put on, but Packers offensive line coach James Campen believes it was for the best.
"He put on good weight. It's not just being heavier and bigger, but he's also gained 7, 8, 9 pounds of solid muscle," Campen said. "That's going to help him in his run game, help him to take on bull rushes, drop his anchor and do those things evident to him — be able to do that even better without losing his athletic ability because he does have very good feet."
Bakhtiari took on several difficult assignments last year and held his own against established veterans like Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware and even new teammate Julius Peppers. Each week presented a new battle and another learning experience.
One of those areas of improvement was stopping the bull rush, which Bakhtiari was prone to losing at times. Bakhtiari struggled in the Packers' playoff loss to San Francisco and had his hands full with Detroit rookie Ziggy Ansah in a 45-10 Thanksgiving beatdown.
Still, the positives outweighed the negatives. His quickness and footwork were substantial upgrades over veteran Marshall Newhouse, who struggled as the swing tackle after starting two years at left tackle.
Bakhtiari maintained his composure throughout. Alongside Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton, the 22-year-old was key to the strides the offense made in the run game, particularly when running in his direction.
With NFL rookie of the year Eddie Lacy, the Packers managed to double their output rushing to the left side (234 carries for 1,261 yards and seven touchdowns) from 2012 (170 carries for 624 yards and four touchdowns).
Bakhtiari's added strength can only help heading into next season.
"David's established himself as a left tackle," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think David's done a very good job in the offseason. He's stronger. He's bigger than he was last year. He's a second-year player, and we talk repeatedly about the improvement you like to see in your second-year and third-year players. I look for David to take that step."
Bakhtiari isn't scribbling any goals in his locker for his sophomore year. When pressed, he offers only that he's striving for a "good year."
Step one was returning for the offseason program noticeably stronger. Once training camp starts later this month, step two will be about translating it to the field.
Admittedly, he can't get comfortable. There's a former first-round pick, Derek Sherrod, standing behind him on the depth chart just waiting for a chance to show he can still offer the Packers something after missing nearly two seasons with a broken leg.
Bakhtiari understands he isn't going to catch anyone by surprise this year. The secret is out and teams will be gunning to exploit his faults. It's his job to evolve and maintain the strong start he got off to last season.
"They've got 17 games on him now, so he's got to work and take a look at the things," Campen said. "So you have to do your diligence and make sure you're giving the player enough tools to combat that. And some freedom, too, in order to say, 'Look, I really feel using this hand versus that hand,' OK, if it works, then carry on.
"But he was basically primarily setting as you'd expect a young player, setting to win, win, win, win, win. And you set to win, but you have to have changeups, and he's been working on those this camp."
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