GREEN BAY — David Bakhtiari was happy to be back to work Sunday, even on a limited basis.
The Green Bay Packers’ two-time All-Pro left tackle hadn’t practiced since spraining his left ankle during the team’s Aug. 4 Family Night event at Lambeau Field and sat out Thursday night’s preseason opener against Tennessee, so being back in pads and taking part in Sunday’s practice — even though he only did individual drill work — was meaningful progress.
An added bonus: He didn’t have to block Reggie Gilbert during 11-on-11 team periods, since Bakhtiari sat those out Sunday.
As the Packers’ training-camp search for complementary pass rushers behind starting outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry continues, it’s Gilbert who has jumped to the front of that line. On Sunday, Gilbert ran with the starting defense throughout practice, a reward for his strong showing against the Titans.
Not that Bakhtiari or veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga is surprised.
“Me and Bryan have always been fans of his,” Bakhtiari said.
During Sunday’s practice, Gilbert lined up at outside linebacker in the base defense opposite Matthews, as Perry remains on the physically unable to perform list with an ankle injury. Until Sunday, Kyler Fackrell had gotten virtually all of those first-team snaps with Matthews in Perry’s place.
Gilbert spent most of the past two years on the practice squad after he signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent out of Arizona in 2016. His development on the practice squad led to a late-season call-up to the 53-man roster for the final two games last year, and he delivered, registering four quarterback pressures and three quarterback hits against Minnesota and notching his career NFL sack against Detroit in the regular-season finale.
“I feel like I’ve come a long way since I got here and am definitely improving. I feel like I’m improving with every session we get as far as in practice or every year in every game,” said Gilbert, who was a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end in college and had to learn to be a stand-up outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 scheme “I feel like I’m learning new things. Clay, Nick and everybody, they’re all helping bring us along. That’s pretty good.”
Gilbert drew extremely high praise from coach Mike McCarthy during the offseason, with McCarthy raving about the “incredible” improvement Gilbert had made as he converted from a hand-down college defensive end to stand-up pro linebacker.
“I think obviously with experience, he’s able to manipulate defenders better, (do) a lot more premeditated things instead of just running out there and being athletic,” Bakhtiari explained. “Some guys rely a lot on their athleticism. He’s setting up certain rushes, he’s becoming smarter, the game’s slowing down for him from, what I can tell. Another thing, he’s gotten stronger. I’ve seen him in the weight room pushing around more weight and I think he looks more like a football player.
“And this is just a side thing, but I think he’s a great person, a great teammate. I think he’s someone you want to have in your locker room the way he goes about his business every day is first class and very professional. I can’t really say anything but positive things about him.”
The Packers, in turn, are hoping for positive production. First-year general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t sign any edge rushers in veteran free agency and the only one he drafted was seventh-rounder Kendall Donnerson out of Southeast Missouri State. While Matthews was held out of the opener purely because he’s a long-time starter who didn’t need to play, and Perry is getting close to being activated from the PUP list, both players have injury histories that suggest others will have to be productive at their positions at times this season.
The 6-foot-3, 260-pound Gilbert looks like the best candidate of the bunch as Fackrell has had a limited impact; ex-University of Wisconsin standout Vince Biegel is still feeling his way after foot surgeries derailed his rookie season last year; and Chris Odom has done little to draw attention.
Against the Titans, Gilbert was credited two tackles and a quarterback hit and generated the most pressure of any Packers rusher while playing the entire first half. Fackrell also started and was credited with a sack when he was in the vicinity as Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota scrambled out of bounds for no gain on the opening drive.
“We’re all hungry. We’re all working hard trying to make plays. I definitely feel like all of us have come a long way and are still improving,” Gilbert said. “I felt I had an OK night. I felt like there were some things I could have done better and things I will get better at moving forward. But it definitely was good going out there and competing against somebody else. Because you do learn things every time you take that field. There’s definitely things I learned and look to improve upon.”
Gilbert thought he’d made the roster coming out of camp last year, so he’s not taking anything for granted at this point. Nevertheless, given the team’s limited depth behind Matthews and Perry, it looks to be more a question of how much Gilbert will play this season than whether he’ll be on the roster.
“I definitely didn’t expect to get the call (about being cut). It came as a surprise to me,” Gilbert said of last year’s final cutdown. “But it happened. There’s nothing you can do about that. You just have to keep going back in the lab and keep getting better.
“I really don’t use that as too much motivation. That’s just the player I am and the kind of person I am. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to try to be the best at it as I can possibly be. Right now, this is my profession. So I’m trying to be the best football player I can possibly be whether that’s here or somewhere else. I’m always going to keep bringing my lunch pail to work and grinding and working hard.”
The Packers got lots of good news on the injury front as a host of players returned to practice — albeit some in a limited capacity — after extended absences.
Back in action were Bakhtiari (ankle); tight end Jimmy Graham (knee); wide receiver Randall Cobb (ankle); cornerbacks Kevin King (shoulder) and Jaire Alexander (groin); running back Aaron Jones (hamstring); and defensive linemen Mike Daniels (quad) and Muhammad Wilkerson (groin). Bakhtiari, King and Daniels only did individual drills and were held out of team periods.
“(We) just wanted to see the progression. Obviously they want to integrate me back in — don’t want to just throw me in right away — but everything felt good,” Bakhtiari said. “I didn’t really feel too bad to begin with, it just was weird when I started putting pressure. My leg just wouldn’t let me let all the weight sink into the joint. That was more the alarming feeling.”
Alexander did team periods and said he hopes to make his NFL debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday after not suiting up against the Titans.
“For sure. Although it’s preseason, it’s still pretty exciting,” Alexander said. “I was excited just watching from the sidelines, just to see the game and the speed of the game. Just being up close, it was almost like I was playing. But I’ll be even more excited when I’m on the field.”
Asked if he’d been tentative at all in his first practice back, Alexander replied, “No, I was myself. If I was going to be timid, I wouldn’t have even went out there. So I was myself. It was fine.”
McCarthy said Monday’s practice, which will be the final full-fledged practice of the week, will be a “heavy lifting” practice that will test most of the injured players and decide whether they’ll be ready for game action.
“Until we get past that, we’ll have a better idea,” McCarthy said. “We’ll sit there and try to match guys up and make sure we give each guy an opportunity to show what they can show.”
Mental mistakes high
McCarthy said the mental errors against the Titans were “off the charts.” Asked if that was because the defense is running a new scheme and the offensive playbook was rewritten in the offseason, McCarthy smiled and replied, “That’s a player-friendly evaluation.”
But, McCarthy quickly added, he sees mental mistakes in two categories, as he sees penalties: combative mental errors and discipline ones. The Packers’ problem was they had too many of the latter.
“It’s the discipline ones you’ve got to get out of your game,” McCarthy said. “If a guy’s really being too aggressive in his play style and he goes a little too far with it, makes a mistake, you know, I’m all for that.”
McCarthy said he used a parenting analogy with the players after Thursday’s mistakes, using sons Jack and George as examples.
“I said (to the boys), ‘Hey, break the chandelier, knock over the table, break the chair. Roughhousing, it’s all good. I’m all for that. .. But (you) just can’t disrespect Mom.’ (That) was the key in that deal,’” McCarthy said. “That (game) was our first live action. So yeah, we had some mistakes where guys were just being a little bit too aggressive, and I’m for that.”
Tackle Jason Spriggs acknowledged he was caught off guard when the coaches decided to start Byron Bell ahead of him at right tackle against the Titans. “(I had been) going with the 1s the whole time,” Spriggs said. “But it was Coach’s decision. I’m not going to get into an argument about it with the coach over his decision of who plays.” … Cobb was at practice but admitted he was running low on sleep. He had a good reason, as he and his wife, Aiyda, welcomed their first child, a boy, over the weekend.