GREEN BAY — In a 2021 Green Bay Packers season filled with feel-good stories — inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell going from on-the-street free agent to first-team All-Pro, cornerback Rasul Douglas intercepting a team-high five passes while finding a home with his sixth team in two years — Yosh Nijman might’ve been the best of the bunch.
Until the ending, anyway. That was anything but storybook.
During the regular season, the Packers little-known gentle giant offensive lineman had been a godsend, stepping in at left tackle when five-time All-Pro David Bakhtiari developed problems with the surgically repaired ACL in his left knee, and Pro Bowl left guard-turned-left tackle Elgton Jenkins missed time with an ankle injury and then was lost for the season to a torn ACL in his left knee in November.
Nijman, who’d played only 14 career offensive snaps before last year, wound up starting eight regular-season games and playing 590 offensive snaps (52.9%), blocking some of the NFL’s best edge rushers (Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt, San Francisco’s Nick Bosa, Cleveland’s Myles Garrett and the Los Angeles Rams’ Von Miller among them) while giving up three sacks and 20 total pressures according to Pro Football Focus.
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While his PFF grade (63.6) wasn’t elite like those of Bakhtiari and Jenkins in past years, Nijman more than held his own while protecting the blindside of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who would go on to win his second straight and fourth overall NFL MVP award.
And, Nijman’s PFF grade was still higher than three of his linemates who started games — center Josh Myers (54.9), guard Royce Newman (55.7), center/guard Lucas Patrick (57.2) — and slightly below those of guard Jon Runyan (64.6) and right tackle Billy Turner (66.2).
But leading into the team’s NFC divisional round game against the 49ers, Adam Stenavich — now the team’s offensive coordinator, but the offensive line coach at the time — decided to reshuffle the line instead of keeping the status quo with Nijman at left tackle.
With Turner returning from a knee injury, Stenavich opted to shift Turner to left tackle and start veteran Dennis Kelly, who’d played well in 4½ games in Turner’s place at right tackle, on the right side.
Turner struggled, Rodgers absorbed five sacks and was under pressure most of the game, and the Packers’ season ended with a 13-10 loss to the 49ers at Lambeau Field.
“I think (it was a matter of) just going with the most experienced guys,” Stenavich explained earlier this offseason. “My perspective on the whole thing was just going with the most experienced, toughest, hard-nosed guys for that kind of a game.
“Just the kind of game it was going to be, I thought it was going to be a pretty good slugfest. That was my decision as an offensive line coach at the time and I think everyone was on board with it.”
Then, after a pause Stenavich added, “It is what it is.”
As the Packers got ready to kick off their second week of organized team activity practices on Tuesday, Nijman hadn’t shown any signs of lingering frustration or bitterness.
The same guy who had to correct coach Matt LaFleur on his name as an undrafted free agent in 2019, who told All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams what a “blessing” it was just to be on the field when Jenkins was injured and entertained teammates with his “giant robot” celebration doesn’t seem to have let last season’s disappointment affect him.
“Everything,” Nijman replied last week when asked in what ways he’s different from this time last year. “This is my fourth year now. As a rookie three years ago, scrambling into meetings and all around the building, for me, it’s more so being a helping hand for those (younger) guys now. … At this point I know most things.”
He also knows the opportunity he has in front of him. With Bakhtiari and Jenkins both still relegated to spectators at OTAs, the No. 1 group that lined up in front of backup quarterback Jordan Love (with Rodgers not attending the first week of OTAs) had Nijman at left tackle, Runyan at left guard, Myers at center, Newman at right guard and Cole Van Lanen at right tackle.
“With Yosh, you’ve got to give him a lot of credit through the last three years, just his work ethic and his consistency working. I think he just needed an opportunity,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “It’s probably as much my fault as anybody. We kept bringing in veteran guys at tackle to shore up that third tackle spot, which never really gave him the opportunity. Once he got the opportunity, he certainly performed exceptionally well.”
With last year’s game experience, Nijman should be the leading candidate to start at right tackle in the Sept. 11 season opener at Minnesota if Bakhtiari finally returns to the lineup but Jenkins isn’t ready and starts out on the physically unable to perform list — especially with Turner, Kelly and Patrick playing with new teams this season.
Once Jenkins is healthy, the Packers will have to decide whether to play him at his previous position (left guard) or move him to right tackle and keep Runyan at left guard, leaving Nijman as the swing tackle backing up both spots.
“We’ll figure all that stuff out. I think if Yosh works at it, Yosh can do whatever he wants,” new line coach Luke Butkus said. “He’s going to have an opportunity.”
With Stenavich having challenged Nijman to take “the next step forward” and prove to the coaches that they can “count on him to be a reliable starter,” Nijman understands nothing will be given to him and that training camp and preseason games will be his proving ground — especially with Gutekunst having picked nine offensive linemen in the past three drafts to elevate the line competition significantly.
“Yosh, he’s a great human being. And then seeing how hard he works (was impressive),” Butkus said. “Every day after practice, I was given the opportunity to work with the young guys. And to see how far he’s come in the last three years is really cool.
“I’m excited, and I think he’s got a huge upside.”