When general manager Ted Thompson traded up in the second round to draft Jason Spriggs last April, it looked like this was going to be David Bakhtiari’s last season as the Green Bay Packers’ left tackle.
Bakhtiari was heading into the final year of his rookie contract, and as a starting left tackle his next deal was going to be big. Spriggs had all the look of a preemptive, money-saving move by Thompson.
But then in training camp the Packers and Bakhtiari talked contract extension, and this week they did a deal that reveals a few things about the state of the Packers’ offensive line.
One, that competent left tackles are hard to find. And two, that Bryan Bulaga’s health at right tackle is at least a moderate concern.
“Everything goes back to what your options are,” said an offensive line coach for another NFL team. “For some people if they have other options or someone they think is going to be ready, then (Bakhtiari) wouldn’t command as much money.”
Bakhtiari indeed commanded a big contract, the highest on the Packers’ offensive line, which usually is the case for an NFL team if the left tackle no longer is on his rookie contract. For extending Bakhtiari’s contract through 2020, the Packers will pay him $12 million a year based on new money and new years, and $9.934 million a year if looking at it as the new, five-year contract that it really is.
The deal means Bakhtiari is the Packers’ left tackle, barring major injury, for at least the next two or three years, and possibly through the length of the contract.
And the value is the biggest takeaway of the deal: That left tackles come at a premium in the NFL because they’re so hard to find.
Bakhtiari at 310 pounds is on the light side for the position, and even now, in his fourth NFL season, he can be vulnerable to power. He doesn’t rank among the top handful of players at his position – an NFL scout I talked to this week ranked Bakhtiari as just inside the top half of left tackles in the game.
But to put that in context, Bakhtiari has shown since the day he took over at left tackle in his rookie training camp that he can handle facing many of the NFL’s most explosive pass rushers week after week without needing a lot of help.
He also has missed only three games in three-plus years, all last season (two regular season and one playoffs) because of an ankle injury. So Thompson made the big investment.
“He’s doing better than I thought he would at this time of his career; I didn’t think he’d be a left tackle,” said an offensive line coach in the NFL who scouted Bakhtiari coming out of Colorado. “But (Packers offensive line coach James) Campen has done a real good job with him.
“The big thing up there with the tackle situation they’ve had the last five years, he’s been healthy. He’s a guy they can trust. He’s probably not an elite tackle, but the kid is a better than average pass protector. He’s got long arms, he’s got good angles. He’s probably not the athletic road grader you want to run behind.”
Going by the new money, Bakhtiari’s contract jumps out. The $12 million average (four years added to this season, with $48 million in new money) ties him at No. 4 among left tackles.
But if you look at it as a new, five-year deal, which in fact it is, the deal makes more sense. It’s worth $49.67 million, or an average of $9.934 million.
That average ranks eighth among left tackles, behind Washington’s Trent Williams ($12.5 million), Buffalo’s Cordy Glenn ($12 million), Cleveland’s Joe Thomas ($11.2 million), New Orleans’ Terron Armstead ($11 million), Denver’s Russell Okung ($10.6 million), Kansas City’s Eric Fisher ($10.5 million) and Dallas’ Tyron Smith (9.97 million).
Four of those players – Glenn, Armstead, Okung and Fisher – signed deals this year, only months or even weeks before Bakhtiari. Glenn, with the biggest deal of the group, had the added leverage of holding the franchise tag designation.
That tells you the Packers consider Bakhtiari at or just below their class.
“(Left tackles) are rare, they’re hard to come by,” said another offensive line coach in the league, “and when you have one you want to do your best to retain them. It’s not always the easiest pill to swallow.”
Maybe Bakhtiari could have done better on the open market next March, though it’s hard to be sure. But the deal had to be attractive to him because now the Packers take on the injury risk for 2016 while he’s guaranteed a lot money regardless of what happens. His full guarantee reportedly is $17 million, and another $10.7 million is the next-best thing to guaranteed as March bonuses and workout pay.
“A pretty good pay day for the guy,” said an agent for a firm that represents several starting offensive linemen in the league.
As for the Packers’ offensive line a year or two down the road, things are clearer than they were a couple weeks ago, but only a little.
Josh Sitton is gone at left guard and Bakhtiari is the left tackle, we know that. But decisions on impending free agents T.J. Lang at right guard and JC Tretter at center could wait until Thompson sees how this season goes.
Lang has missed only two starts in the last five years but turns 29 next week, an age when Thompson lets many free agents walk. That one could go either way. Tretter has proven to be a starting-caliber player, but would the Packers really re-sign him with Corey Linsley, who would be the starter if not on PUP, under contract through 2017?
Then there’s Bulaga, who while relatively young (27) has had serious hip (2012) and knee (2013) injuries. If the season shows that the major surgeries have begun to extract a toll on his play, the Packers could save some cap room by turning that job over to Spriggs in 2017.
However, Bulaga’s $6 million in salary and bonuses next year isn’t prohibitive, so if his body holds up well enough, then Spriggs on his rookie contract would provide an inexpensive backup at both tackles in ‘17. The Packers also could move Bulaga to guard in a year or two – he’s under contract through 2019.
But the hardest part of the puzzle -- left tackle -- is solved.