Packers may need to extend Bakhtiari early
As offensive tackles go, the 2013 NFL draft offered an unprecedented talent swell.
Eric Fisher went No. 1 overall to Kansas City. Luke Joeckel went next to Jacksonville. Two picks later, Lane Johnson went to Philadelphia.
Since the NFL merged in 1970, 2013 is the only year three offensive tackles were drafted with the first four picks. There were a record five offensive tackles drafted in the first 20 picks, and three guards to boot.
Four rounds and two days later, the Green Bay Packers used their No. 109 overall pick to draft David Bakhtiari. He arrived in Green Bay with no fanfare, no expectations beyond adding depth to the Packers offensive line. Bakhtiari was the 10th offensive tackle drafted in 2013.
Three years later, he might be the best offensive tackle from that heralded class.
Bryan Bulaga’s torn ACL before the 2013 season opened the door for Bakhtiari to become the Packers' starting left tackle as a rookie. He hasn’t bobbled the job since. Of the first 10 tackles drafted in 2013, Bakhtiari was the only one to start each game in his first two seasons. His streak stretched to 49 straight starts before finally ending with a sprained ankle Dec. 20 in Oakland.
Bakhtiari is the only offensive tackle from the 2013 class to start 50 games in his first three seasons (counting playoffs), and he reached that milestone with the added difficulty of playing on the left side.
“I don’t want to be a left tackle,” Bakhtiari said last offseason. “I want to be the left tackle. There’s no ceiling for where I want to go.”
If Bakhtiari’s development continues its trajectory, where he’s going is an expensive pay day. A top 10 left tackle fetches almost $10 million annually on the open market. Bakhtiari, who will turn 25 in September, could be paid like a top 10 left tackle if he hits the open market.
It would be a steep increase from 2015. Bakhtiari entered last season as the league’s 83rd-highest paid offensive tackle, playing on a fourth rounder’s salary that averaged $653,850 annually.
His impending price tag should create urgency for the Packers. General manager Ted Thompson has an on-and-off history of extending contracts before the end of a player’s fourth season, which helps lower the cost of business. Defensive end Mike Daniels would have been the team’s top free-agent priority this offseason, but he signed a four-year, $42 million extension in December.
While the Packers have 18 players who will become free agents in March, it’s not too early to start thinking about next year’s class. Daniels’ extension set the stage for a relatively mild 2016 offseason. The Packers will have big decisions to make a year from now.
Along with Bakhtiari, guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang will become free agents in 2017. Sitton and Lang are two of the NFL’s best guards, and they’re paid like it with salaries that rank among the league’s top five at their position. Bulaga signed a five-year, $33.75 million last offseason, making him the league’s highest-paid right tackle, according to Over the Cap.
It’s unlikely the Packers can keep their entire starting offensive line intact past this season. With the salary cap, teams can’t pay everybody. Which is why the Packers have plenty of incentive to extend Bakhtiari before 2016 ends, perhaps locking up the left tackle position with a cost-effective deal.
As he cleaned out his locker two days after the season ended in Arizona, Bakhtiari said there had been no contract talk with the Packers. It’s clear he’d like to continue his career in Green Bay past next season.
“I think it’s mutual,” Bakhtiari told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. “I like it here, and they like me. I have another year. So I think if they want to do it early, awesome. If not, then we have one more year to work together. So we can talk about it then. I do think it’s too early though.”
The Packers could use a high draft pick on an offensive tackle this year or next, but that comes with plenty of risk. Good left tackles are hard to find, and Bakhtiari has proven to be a good left tackle. He also has the winning combination of being young.
Thompson typically retains his good, young draft picks.
Bakhtiari wasn’t expected to be the Packers’ top Year 3 priority from the 2013 draft class. If any player was going to be extended early, it figured to be second-round running back Eddie Lacy. In his first two seasons, Lacy rushed for 1,100 yards and won NFL offensive rookie of the year honors.
Lacy’s 2015 season was a disaster, and his career arrives at a crossroads this offseason. The big tailback will not only need to shed weight. He’ll have to prove his commitment before teams — including the Packers — are willing to offer a lucrative second contract.
Bakthiari was the antithesis of Lacy in 2015. He allowed no sacks in his final 10 games this season (counting playoffs), according to Pro Football Focus. His three sacks allowed in 14 games tied for third fewest in the league among offensive tackles who played at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps. His 33 total pressures allowed tied for tenth.
The Packers drafted Bakhtiari because of his pass blocking. While he’s an average run blocker and needs to clean up some penalty issues, the No. 1 responsibility on the Packers' offensive line is to keep franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ jersey clean. Bakhtiari has gotten progressively better. He allowed 10 sacks as a rookie, seven last season.
His 8.9 pass-blocking grade ranked eighth among left tackles during the 2015 season.
“Dave’s been a solid contributor to the team for a while now,” Bulaga said. “Since his rookie year.”
The question entering 2016 is how many years are left. An early extension could be the key to Bakhtiari’s long-term future with the Packers.