GREEN BAY - David Bakhtiari hobbled away from Lambeau Field in January on an ankle shredded with five torn ligaments, three severely. “A lot of damage,” the Green Bay Packers left tackle said as he cleaned out his locker.
Not 48 hours before, Bakhtiari had played all 73 snaps in an overtime playoff loss at Arizona. He gritted through the pain, showed an offensive lineman’s toughness. It left him with a short offseason that, Bakhtiari said, went by way too fast.
Bakhtiari said Tuesday he didn’t need to surgically repair his ankle this offseason, but there was plenty of work to do. Alternating rest and rehab, it took a focused plan to prepare him for this week’s start of organized team activities.
His work remains unfinished.
Bakhtiari said his high sprain Week 15 at Oakland was the type of injury that “changes” an ankle, in that it will now need regular attention. Asked if his ankle is 100 percent, Bakhtiari said it’s healthy enough to “do everything I want to do” as a left tackle. There are no limitations – Bakhtiari practiced Tuesday while right guard T.J. Lang and center Corey Linsley sat out – but rehab was a constant grind over the past few months.
“It’s hard when something like that changes your ankle,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s obviously going to be a little bit different, but to let me do everything I want to do, it took me the offseason to get it right.
“You have to be conscientious of it and make sure that if anything happens, or if you notice anything, just make sure to take care of it and not let it linger.”
Entering the final season of his rookie contract, the fourth-year starting left tackle has plenty of reason to be cautious with his health. After starting the first 49 games of his career (counting playoffs) as quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ blindside blocker, Bakhtiari missed three games late last season.
In his absence, the Packers' offensive line was in shambles. Rodgers was sacked eight times in a 30-point loss at Arizona in December, the Packers' most lopsided loss with their two-time MVP as starting quarterback. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga later left the game with a twisted ankle. The next week, coach Mike McCarthy shuffled his lineup for the regular-season finale, moving left guard Josh Sitton to left tackle in a loss to Minnesota.
For that reason, Bakhtiari said, he was not surprised when Packers general manager Ted Thompson traded up nine spots in the second round to draft Indiana tackle Jason Spriggs last month.
“I completely understand it,” Bakhtiari said. “When I went down, or when Bryan went down, we had a complete shuffle of the offensive line trying new guys every week. We even tried a guard out there. I think that if you put me in an organization (perspective), I completely understand it. It’s very smart.
“I think that just really adds depth and really shores up, because that’s a scary thing that you have No. 12 sitting back there, and he has his tackles go down – especially in the same game. I 100 percent can see how the draft unfolded based on that.”
As for Bakhtiari’s first impressions of Spriggs: “I think it’s great. He’s a good player. I’ve watched him play, he’s athletic. I think he’s got a bright future. He just needs to continue to improve and learn.”
Credit Bakhtiari for embracing his rookie teammate publicly. It easily could be an awkward situation for the veteran.
Bakhtiari is on a trajectory to receive a substantial payday after this season, whether from the Packers or elsewhere. With a rising salary cap, premier free agents have not been cheap this offseason.
Cordy Glenn, a four-year starter at left tackle, re-signed with the Buffalo Bills for five years and $65 million ($13 million annual average) this offseason. Glenn has been a better run defender, but Bakhtiari’s pass blocking is on par with the 2012 second-round pick. Bakhtiari, drafted in the fourth round one year later, projects to be a young (25 years old), ascending left tackle in 2017.
That type of talent isn’t cheap.
With next year’s salary cap likely to rise again, expect Bakhtiari to receive a contract similar to Glenn’s on the open market. Thompson could allow Bakhtiari to walk if he feels Spriggs is ready to be a full-time starting left tackle. If not, Thompson would be wise to re-sign Bakhtiari during the season, before the open market boosts his price.
Bakhtiari said he believes there is “mutual” interest between him and the Packers to get a deal done before the season ends. He wants to stay in Green Bay, keep protecting Rodgers’ blindside. Bakhtiari would not say whether preliminary negotiations have started, but he certainly understands his situation entering a contract year.
“You’re aware of it,” Bakhtiari said, “but that ain’t going to change anything I’m going to do. The more I think about it, it’s a distraction at the end of the day. So the No. 1 thing I’m going to do is just stay the status quo, keep trying to improve, keep working harder to make the team better, to make myself better, and let that part sort itself out.
“Me talking about it, me thinking about it, ain’t going to get it done. Me just coming in working hard and doing what I have to do every day, that’ll be the only contributing factor that I can do toward the next phase.”
Bakhtiari isn’t the only big decision looming for the Packers' offensive line in the upcoming year. Sitton and right guard T.J. Lang also become free agents in 2017, as well as top backup JC Tretter.
The Packers already appear to be planning for life after this season. Not only did Thompson trade up to draft Spriggs, but offensive line coach James Campen added center to second-year guard Matt Rotheram’s responsibilities. Rotheram’s ability to play all three interior positions could set him up to be Tretter’s eventual replacement.
Bakhtiari isn’t the only impending free agent aware of his situation. Sitton underwent an offseason makeover, losing 20 pounds. Currently at 305 to 310 pounds, Sitton said, his weight is the lowest it’s been since 2011. That was the season before he started to become a three-time All-Pro.
“He looks pretty svelte, doesn’t he?” Rodgers quipped Tuesday. “He looks great. I’m happy for him. He’s in a contract year. He came back looking really good.”
Sitton expects to gain another 10 pounds or so before the season starts. He wants his playing weight to be “no less than” 315 next season, but not much more either. Sitton said his goal was to lose “bad weight” and put “better weight” back on.
It’s his way of maximizing that contract year. Yes, he knows what’s waiting when 2016 ends.
“All we can focus on is getting ready to play this season,” Sitton said. “All of that other stuff is kind of out of our control. I think we’d all love to be here at the end of the year, but it’s out of our control. All we can do is go out and play well and try to play well as a unit, and everything else will take care of itself – whether it’s here or somewhere else.”
This will be the third straight year the Packers open with the same five starters on their offensive line, no easy feat. The Packers had one of the NFL’s best units in 2014, primarily because the same five starters played the final 16 games (counting playoffs). When each of the five starters had extended stays on the injury report last season, their collective starts shrunk to eight.
With health, Bakhtiari said, there is no limit to how good the Packers' offensive line can be this fall.
“I think everyone already knows,” Bakhtiari said. “I mean, without a doubt top five. Without a doubt. That’s not even a question. Talking Nos. 1, 2, 3 (in the NFL) – that’s something we’re going to work on in the offseason, make sure we can elevate our game not only as individuals but collectively as a unit. I think across the board, we’ve got some of the best linemen in the league.”
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