Packers playing the long game by refusing to rush David Bakhtiari's return
GREEN BAY – Even if David Bakhtiari’s absence from the field to start this season didn’t become official until Tuesday afternoon, it’s an inevitability the Green Bay Packers have prepared to encounter for months.
There was a time midway through training camp, coach Matt LaFleur said, when the Packers hoped Bakhtiari might make a run at returning from the torn ACL in his left knee in time to be included on the team’s initial 53-man roster. It never happened though, and as Tuesday’s deadline for submitting the roster approached, it was clear Bakhtiari would not be activated from the physically unable to perform list.
“I think from the history and the timelines of the injury that he suffered and where he’s at,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said Wednesday, “he’s such a cornerstone piece to this organization, and he’s such an important part of what we’re doing. I just think where he’s at and where we thought he could be in the first six weeks, this was the best thing for the team and for David.
“What he brings to our football team, rushing him out there was not something I was going to be comfortable doing.”
Gutekunst said his medical staff advised him Bakhtiari would need between nine and 11 months to return from his injury. The All-Pro left tackle is only now approaching the eight-month mark after his knee surgery.
The Packers, a team confident it can win a Super Bowl this season, are essentially playing the long game with Bakhtiari. His absence was a major reason they lost last season’s NFC championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside Lambeau Field. Gutekunst knows his team needs its franchise left tackle to have its best chance at making a deep postseason run.
It helps that the Packers have one of the NFL’s most talented and versatile offensive linemen in Elgton Jenkins. He will be Bakhtiari’s replacement until the season’s midway point, at the earliest. Gutekunst said Bakhtiari would have remained on PUP even if Jenkins wasn’t available as an adequate replacement.
“I think this is more about David’s health and where he’s at,” Gutekunst said. “If we didn’t have Elgton for some reason, I don’t think it would have changed the decision any.”
The Packers moved Jenkins to left tackle early this offseason, and they left him there all throughout camp. He has been the team’s starter on the blindside for months, and though the Packers won’t really know what they have in Bakhtiari’s replacement until he plays in games, Jenkins should inspire more confidence in the plan for the next several weeks.
LaFleur said he expects a “learning curve” for Jenkins as he acclimates to left tackle, but it won’t force him to change his scheme. It will be the same offense, with the same left tackle, the Packers have spent their offseason preparing to play with in the early regular season.
“I think from our standpoint as coaches,” LaFleur said, “we’ve kind of been preparing that way forever, since it happens. You’ve got to prepare for that. If you get him back earlier, great. That’s a bonus. We kind of had our minds set on that from Day 1.”
Fixing the punting problem
Gutekunst didn’t mind doubling down on another draft pick to fix the problem he had at punter.
The GM had drafted JK Scott in the 2019 fifth round, hoping he would be the Packers' long-term punter. Scott’s inconsistencies were always an issue, leading Gutekunst to look elsewhere. On Tuesday, Gutekunst finally found what he believed is a better option, swapping a sixth-round pick in 2023 for a seventh and acquiring Los Angeles Rams punter Corey Bojorquez.
Gutekunst said the Packers’ order on the waiver wire was too far back for him to feel confident he could claim Bojorquez, leading to the trade.
“I think we just kind of felt if we wanted to acquire the player,” Gutekunst said, “this is what we needed to do, to do it. Flopping picks at 23 there, I didn’t think that was much to give up for someone we kind of really wanted to bring into the squad.”
Bojorquez punted the past three seasons in Buffalo before signing with the Rams, who were going to release him Tuesday in favor of incumbent Johnny Hekker. So he is familiar with punting in cold-weather environments. Bojorquez led the NFL last season in gross punting with a 50.8-yard average.
“Corey had a fantastic season in Buffalo last year,” Gutekunst said, “and just watching him this preseason, we thought that this was a chance for us to get better.”
Benkert, EQ on practice squad
For all the concern over whether the Packers would have difficult decisions to make at the bottom of their roster, no one they released Tuesday was claimed by another team.
The Packers were able to retain quarterback Kurt Benkert among their 16-player practice squad. Benkert might have played his way onto the roster bubble this preseason, though the practice squad was always the team’s preferred destination for their third quarterback.
The Packers also retained receivers Equanimeous St. Brown, Juwann Winfree and Chris Blair, cornerback Kabion Ento, guard Ben Braden, guard/tackle Jacob Capra, guard/tackle Cole Van Lanen, safety Innis Gaines, outside linebacker Tipa Galeai, inside linebacker Ray Wilborn, tight end Bronson Kaufusi, kicker JJ Molson, defensive linemen Abdullah Anderson and Willington Previlon and running back Patrick Taylor.
Running back Dexter Williams, a sixth-round pick in 2019, was not brought back. Instead, he signed with the New York Giants' practice squad.
Za’Darius Smith was among three Packers players not practicing Wednesday, joining safety Vernon Scott and defensive lineman Tyler Lancaster.
The timeline for Smith’s return to the field from a back injury remains uncertain, coach Matt LaFleur said.
BLOG REPLAY: What's the deal with Za'Darius Smith's injury?
“I’d say he’s up in the air,” LaFleur said, “but he is getting better on a daily basis, and he’s really putting the time in. And I trust our training crew, Flea (head athletic trainer Bryan Engle) and those guys are doing an outstanding job with him. I think Z, he wants to be out there. So we’re optimistic that potentially he’ll be back out there sooner than later.”
The Packers got good injury news Wednesday as tackle Dennis Kelly practiced after missing the second half of training camp with a knee injury.