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With ‘alpha’ Elgton Jenkins stepping in, Packers confident they can thrive without David Bakhtiari
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With ‘alpha’ Elgton Jenkins stepping in, Packers confident they can thrive without David Bakhtiari

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Elgton Jenkins will make his first NFL start at left tackle Sunday.

GREEN BAY — Even Elgton Jenkins realizes this is not normal.

He doesn’t mind, of course. It’s just ... well, different.

In most NFL cities, the prospect of kicking off the season without your franchise left tackle would be unnerving, to say the least. Coaches and quarterbacks and other offensive linemen would all say the right things, expressing confidence the fill-in starter would be up to the task and is ready for the job, but privately, they’d be worried.

In Green Bay, where the Packers will be without left tackle David Bakhtiari — a five-time All-Pro, a three-time Pro Bowler and arguably the best offensive tackle in the game today — for at least the season’s first six games, there is no panic. No one is having to act like they’re not concerned. Because they are, legitimately, not concerned.

Because of Jenkins.

“I love it,” the Packers’ left guard-turned-right tackle said earlier this week as the team began its preparations for Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field. “It’s a challenge to me, going out there and playing at the same standard as ‘Bakh’ did.

“I love that they had the confidence in me. And I have the confidence in myself to go out there and just keep the ball rolling, and hold it down until ‘69’ gets back.”

This is not to say there isn’t a trickle-down effect of moving Jenkins, who earned his first Pro Bowl selection as a left guard last season — and whom offensive line coach Adam Stenavich posited this summer could be a Pro Bowl player at any of the line’s five positions

But the storyline on the offensive line this week is more about the two rookie starters with whom the Packers will be protecting quarterback Aaron Rodgers — center Josh Myers, a second-round pick, and right guard Royce Newman, a fourth-round pick — than the absence of Bakhtiari, who continues to rehabilitate his left knee, having torn his ACL on Dec. 31 and undergone reconstructive surgery on Jan. 7.

That’s because, around 1265 Lombardi Avenue this week — and, in truth, throughout training camp — no one has questioned whether Jenkins will be up to the task. And that says everything you need to know about the otherwise soft-spoken 2019 second-round pick from Mississippi State.

They're not suggesting Jenkins' job will be easy. But they are convinced he's up to it.

“The moment’s never too big for him,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur explained. “A lot of guys might struggle mentally just because the timing of everything you’re doing is a little different when you’re inside (at guard) versus outside (at tackle). Just that transition alone is tough for anybody to do it. I think he just attacks it with the right attitude. He’s got a lot of confidence in himself. He is an alpha.

“You look at everything he possesses from his size, his quickness, his strength, his ability to — no matter what we ask of him — perform at a high level. Certainly, again, he’s got to go out there and prove it, but he’s a guy that we are very optimistic about.”

Added general manager Brian Gutekunst: “I think all players when they switch positions it’s going to take a little time to get the nuances of that position down. But I’m very confident that he can go do this at a high level. How good he can be? We’ll see. He’s exceeded expectations in everything we’ve ever asked him to do.

“It is nice having a guy we feel can play five spots on the offensive line at a very high level. That’s pretty rare in this league, and Elgton’s proven, I think, he can do that. Left tackle in the National Football League is not an easy thing, and this is going to be a challenge for him. But we have a lot of confidence in Elgton."

The 6-foot-5, 311-pound Jenkins played everywhere along the line except right guard last season — though he did see action there as a rookie in 2019. For the year, Jenkins played 1,037 offensive snaps — 681 at left guard, 297 at center, 27 at left tackle (at San Francisco on Nov. 5) and 32 at right tackle (against Minnesota on Nov. 1). According to Elias Sports Bureau, dating to 1970, Jenkins became the first Packers players to start games at guard, center and tackle in the same season

Jenkins said he actually asked to play left tackle against the 49ers when an injury to veteran Rick Wagner forced Stenavich to shuffle the line, but he never asked to play right guard last year just so he could say he’d played at all five spots in the same season.

Now, though, he’s focused on just one position: left tackle, the most important spot there is on the line. And while Jenkins appreciates the responsibility of protecting three-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers’ blind side, he is confident he’s gotten ample work in training camp to be prepared—despite not taking a single snap in preseason games.

“I’ve been doing it for what about five weeks in pads. I feel like I’m pretty well adjusted to it now,” Jenkins said. “When you’re blocking for a Hall of Fame quarterback like Aaron, it’s always a high responsibility for all the five guys on the line. We take pride in blocking for him and making sure he stays up, stays clean, and just going there and getting the job done.”

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