McGinn: Pass protector Bakhtiari a bargain

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – Anyone even thinking about taking David Bakhtiari for granted would be wise to remember exactly one year ago when the Green Bay Packers weren’t as fortunate at left tackle as they are today.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (left) looks for a receiver while tackle David Bakhtiari blocks Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett in the third quarter of Green Bay's win over Seattle on Dec. 11 at Lambeau Field.

With Bakhtiari out nursing an ankle injury, the Packers went to the desert in Game 15 and poor Don Barclay was lanced for 4 ½ sacks (8 ½ pressures in all) in Arizona’s 38-8 triumph.

A week later, with the NFC North championship on the line, coach Mike McCarthy had the bad idea of moving left guard Josh Sitton to left tackle. When Minnesota’s Everson Griffen got done with the marooned Sitton (six pressures, two “bad” runs), the Vikings could exult in ending the Packers’ title streak at four.

The 113th renewal of Packers-Vikings commences at noon Saturday at Lambeau Field. Green Bay has its share of concerns but left tackle most assuredly isn’t one of them.

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Bakhtiari is the best pass blocker on what might be the NFL’s best pass-blocking offensive line. It also could be argued that Bakhtiari, from Game 1 to Game 14, has played his position better than anyone on the roster.

Offensive-line play was revolutionized in March 1978 when NFL owners approved the extension of arms and open hands. Almost overnight, blockers stopped being sitting ducks with their balled-up fists tight against their chest while their elbows stuck out like handles to be grabbed by defensive linemen.

Since the rules changed, the Packers have played 611 regular-season games (three strike-replacement games in 1987 were discounted) and 37 playoff games. In those 648 games played over 39 seasons, the Packers have started 27 different players at left tackle.

The leaders in starts, Chad Clifton with 173 from 2000-11 and Ken Ruettgers with 147 from 1985-96, also were the two best players.

“I thought (Clifton) was good,” said Tom Lovat, the Packers’ offensive line coach for one season (1980) under Bart Starr and for all seven (1992-98) seasons under Mike Holmgren. “I’d classify him as a Ruettgers. Probably a little more explosive than Kenny, and he might have had a little more quickness. They’re very close.

“Probably one of the reasons they’re 1-2 is technically they did the things that keep you from getting injured. Never out of position.”

Lovat’s son, Mark, is the Packers’ strength coach. At 77, Lovat watches every game from his home in Appleton. Each January, Lovat departs for a warm-weather site to prepare a group of offensive linemen for the combine and pro football.

Third on the start list at left tackle over those 39 years is Bakhtiari with 64. Lovat coached Karl Swanke, who is fourth with 52 starts from 1982-85, and both Ross Verba (1997-99) and Tim Stokes (1978-82), who are tied for fifth with 41.

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Lovat marveled at the fact the Packers found a player of Bakhtiari’s caliber in the fourth round.

“I think he’s better right now than I remember Ross,” Lovat said of Verba, a first-round draft choice in 1997. “For a fourth-rounder they got a pretty good buy.”

Is Bakhtiari as good as Ruettgers and Clifton?

“Not yet, no, not yet,” replied Lovat. “But if he makes the same strides he’s made in the past four years, yes.

“How old is he (25)? If he can stay healthy they won’t need to replace him. Let’s put it that way.”

Since 1978, the Packers’ only left tackle selected for the Pro Bowl was Clifton in 2010. Based on the postseason grades that I’ve been charged with handing out since 1991, the best at the position was Clifton’s A-minus performance in 2004.

Bakhtiari’s steady ascent is reflected by his grades of C-plus in 2013 as the Packers’ first full-season rookie starter at left tackle since Mark Koncar in 1976, B-minus in ’14 and B in ’15.

This week, two high-ranking personnel men for AFC teams were asked if they’d take Bakhtiari or each of the 31 other starting left tackles based on winning a game now.

Bakhtiari tied for 10th (19-9-3) on one ballot and tied for 12th (18-11-2) on the other.

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Seven players were picked over Bakhtiari by both scouts: Trent Williams of Washington, Jason Peters of Philadelphia, Tyron Smith of Dallas, Joe Staley of San Francisco, Cordy Glenn of Buffalo, Joe Thomas of Cleveland and Taylor Lewan of Tennessee. All except Staley and Glenn made the Pro Bowl.

Three players – Branden Albert of Miami, Duane Brown of Houston and Eric Fisher of Kansas City – earned a 1-0-1 nod over Bakhtiari. Three others – Ereck Flowers of the New York Giants, Jake Matthews of Atlanta and Denver’s Russell Okung – tied Bakhtiari, 1-1.

Bakhtiari went 1-0-1 against New Orleans’ Terron Armstead and New England’s Nate Solder. Among the 16 players defeated by Bakhtiari, 2-0, were Donald Penn of Oakland, the other Pro Bowl selection, and Cincinnati’s Andrew Whitworth, a Pro Bowl choice last year.

“What stands out is his productivity as a pass protector,” one of the AFC execs said. “He’s not going to have your prototypical length that a traditional left tackle may have but he overcomes that with angles, instincts, movement, recognition. He can move his feet and mirror guys.”

Based on my statistical breakdowns, Bakhtiari’s development has been startling, to say the least. Frankly, I was surprised Bakhtiari didn’t rank perhaps seventh or eighth at the position.

When it comes to pressures, which is defined as sacks, knockdowns and hurries, Bakhtiari has allowed just one pressure (a sack by Houston’s Whitney Mercilus) in the last four games. In the last month he stymied Chicago’s Leonard Floyd, Seattle’s Frank Clark and Philadelphia’s Connor Barwin.

In 14 games Bakhtiari’s pressure yield of 11 ½ (includes 3 1/2 sacks) is the lowest on the Packers’ line; it also reflects vast improvement from 27 in 15 games last year, 33 in 18 starts in ‘14 and 37 in 17 starts in ’13. He ranked either last or second to last among his Green Bay linemates from 2013-15.

In terms of “bad” run responsibility, Bakhtiari has the fewest of the Packers’ linemen with 5 ½. He also had the fewest last year with eight, a dramatic improvement from 19 ½ (most) in 2014 and 15 ½ (second-most) in ’13.

His penalty total (accepted only) also has nose-dived. After either leading or being tied for the lead among his linemates with 10, eight and 10 in his first three seasons, he still leads the group but with only four.

Bakhtiari didn’t play well against the Bears in October, Tennessee or Houston. Otherwise, he has been lights out.

As first alternate for the Pro Bowl, it means Bakhtiari finished fourth among NFC tackles behind Smith, Williams and Peters, who has been penalized 11 times in 15 games.

From 1984-2005, the Packers employed four offensive line coaches. Each one still watches many if not all of their games. Their perspectives from afar on Bakhtiari proved interesting.

Jerry Wampfler (1984-87), 84, retired, lives in River Ranch, Fla.: “I don’t know whether he’s gotten stronger or whether he has gotten better on his anchorability by body positioning. I’d have to be there to know that. Or he’s improved both. Sometimes as you get stronger you get more confidence in your anchorability and you’re able to put your feet flat on the ground. That sounds funny but it’s the truth. Some guys are dancers and are quick, but they can’t anchor.”

Charlie Davis (1988-91), 72, retired, lives in Atlantic Beach, Fla.: “He looks like he’s kind of a tough guy. A little nastiness, which you almost have to have. … I’m impressed with his intentness. I’m very impressed with his steps. Jimmy Campen played for me. Jimmy does a great job with the footwork. … I’m  not sure he’s as athletic as some of the great left tackles. My impression is he isn’t as much of an athlete as a real good technician. He has real good balance. … Kenny (Ruettgers) was a very smart guy and a real good technician. Worked at his craft really, really hard. Not quite as tough as you might like. He really bought into the (kick) step things we were doing.”

Lovat: “I’ve seen improvement, that’s for sure. As I watch the games now I think he gets to position quicker than he used to. He’s a little more sure of himself. He does look stronger. He looks like a good athlete. Seems like he’s a worker. … He held a lot (early). That comes with experience and learning how to drop your anchor and short set and do things that set the timing of the rushers off. … The way the Packers run the ball it’s hard to say about his (run blocking). I wouldn’t say he’s blowing anybody off the ball but that’s not their style, anyway. They’re more zone, more position type. I’d say he’s a steady blocker. He does seem to have some explosion in his butt. … (Ruettgers) was a technician. He wasn’t really quick-twitch or any of that stuff. He was more of a mauler. He’d get into you and sustain it. You don’t put him with the elite guys but he was good.”

Larry Beightol (1999-05), 74, retired, lives in Fayetteville, Ark. “I really like this kid. He’s become a big-time player in my mind. … Excellent pass blocker. Uses his hands and his feet to his advantage. Not many people can beat him. … He didn’t have any anchor (early). He didn’t know how to do it. But he sure can now. I don’t think it’s a problem at all now. He’s gotten bigger and stronger. He’s got an awful lot more confidence than when I first saw him. … I think he is approaching Chad (Clifton), certainly. Chad was a very athletic guy as well. Chad was taller and I think he had more girth. Chad could do so many things. That doesn’t mean Bakhtiari can’t. They’re both very, very good players."

So often teams extend contracts and then for one reason or another the player doesn’t meet expectations. Bakhtiari had one year left on his contract one day before the regular-season opener when management signed him to a four-year, $49.677 million extension ($16 million guaranteed).

It goes without saying that Bakhtiari has been earning every nickel this season. The critical position of left tackle is in good hands with him.

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