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PACKERS

With talent and young depth — but questions about health — Packers like what they have on offensive line

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Offensive lineman Josh Myers, who played in six games as a rookie last season, spent the majority of Green Bay's offseason program at center. 

GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur called it a “great question.” What the Green Bay Packers coach did not have — at least for the time being — was a great answer.

For most of the Packers’ offseason program, which wrapped up Thursday with the final organized team activity practice of the spring, the offensive line consisted of Yosh Nijman at left tackle, Jon Runyan at left guard, Josh Myers at center, Royce Newman at right guard and Cole Van Lanen at right tackle. Newman also got work at right tackle, with Van Lanen or Jake Hanson taking the right guard reps in those instances.

Notice two names are conspicuously absent from that lineup: fve-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari and Pro Bowl left guard-turned-left tackle Elgton Jenkins. Both players spent the entirety of OTAs and the mandatory minicamp in the team’s medical rehabilitation group working their way back from torn ACLs in their left knees — Bakhtiari’s during a Dec. 31, 2020 practice and Jenkins’ during a Nov. 21 loss at Minnesota.

So, LaFleur was asked as his offseason program drew to a close, how does he feel about the offensive line when not even he can say for sure what it will look like when training camp kicks off on July 27 — and, for that matter, when the regular season kicks off at Minnesota on Sept. 11?

“That’s a great question. I think time will tell,” LaFleur replied. “I think it’s always a little more challenging really when you’re talking up front, offensive line, defensive line, this time of the season without pads on. How are they going to look?

“We’ve done so much jog-through tempo (instead of) full-speed tempo, but we’re excited. I think we’ve got some pieces to work with.”

Undoubtedly, Bakhtiari’s status is the biggest worry at this point. As expected given the timing of his injury, he missed all of training camp last summer and started the season on the physically unable to perform list. But he began practicing on Oct. 20, was activated off the PUP list on Nov. 10 and appeared poised to play in the team’s Nov. 14 game against Seattle.

Then came what the team considered an arthroscopic “clean-up” procedure as a follow-up to his January 2021 reconstructive surgery, and Bakhtiari only saw action in the team’s Jan. 9 regular-season finale at Detroit, logging 27 snaps at least partially at quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ behest, Rodgers’ admitted afterward.

Even with a playoff bye for the NFC’s No. 1 seed, Bakhtiari wasn’t ready for what turned out to be the team’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers in a Jan. 22 NFC divisional playoff game. While LaFleur suggested after the season Bakhtiari would have been cleared to play in the NFC Championship Game if the Packers had advanced, LaFleur has been noticeably cautious in his choice of words when asked about Bakhtiari’s status throughout the offseason.

“Time will tell,” LaFleur replied Tuesday when asked if Bakhtiari would be ready for the start of camp. “We fully anticipate him being ready to go, but we did last year, as well. So I think time will tell. But we feel good about the work that he’s put in and where he’s at.”

Jenkins, meanwhile, seems destined to start the season on the PUP list given how late in the year his injury occurred. While every knee injury is different, given the setbacks Bakhtiari experienced it’s hard to imagine the already ultra-cautious Packers medical staff speeding up Jenkins’ timeline.

On top of that, as a 2019 second-round draft pick, Jenkins is in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract and in line for a lucrative long-term extension. Given his versatility and how well he played at left tackle in Bakhtiari’s place, he can’t afford to put himself at risk for setbacks with his knee that would endanger his earning power.

“For (roughly) six months out (from surgery), I’m feeling real good. I’m running, doing different things, so I’m feeling good,” Jenkins said during the mandatory minicamp. “Right now, it’s just continuing to work. And then, when that time comes for me to get out there, and when I’m comfortable and the trainers are comfortable, then we’ll do it.”

Meanwhile, after missing 10 games with a knee injury of his own (a torn MCL and a tibial plateau fracture), Myers was able to participate fully in OTAs and minicamp and appears primed for a strong second season. A second-round pick a year ago, the Packers had high hopes for Myers replacing first-team All-Pro center Corey Linsley following Linsley’s free agent departure last offseason — and still do.

“That time that I was out for injuries was really rough. The time that I was in there, I felt good about. Definitely stuff to build on, no doubt about it,” Myers said. “I think the biggest thing for me that I’ve felt so far has been I just have a better understanding of the offense. Because of that, I’m able to see things that I might have missed earlier on because there was so much going on with the offense in my head.”

If Bakhtiari and Jenkins return to full health, the Packers’ preferred line would have Bakhtiari at left tackle, Runyan at left guard, Myers at center, Newman at right guard and Jenkins at right tackle. On the strength of that projection, Pro Football Focus ranks the Packers’ 2022 line as the fifth-best in the 32-team NFL.

“You get (No.) 69 and Elgton back, that’s a real good offensive line, I think,” Rodgers said. “So we feel good about it.”

But with general manager Brian Gutekunst having augmented the line depth by using three draft picks on linemen in each of the past three drafts — with eight of those nine picks still on the 90-man roster — changes could be in the offing.

In addition to having Runyan and Hanson back from the 2020 class and Myers, Newman and Van Lanen from the 2021 class, the Packers took UCLA’s Sean Rhyan (third round), Wake Forest’s Zach Tom (fifth round) and Penn State’s Rasheed Walker (seventh round) this year.

Bakhtiari, Newman and Runyan all made training camp moves up the depth chart as rookies, so Rhyan, a left tackle at UCLA, barging into the discussion for a starting job during camp wouldn’t be at all surprising.

The most obvious opening is at right tackle, where the Packers cut veteran Billy Turner in a cost-cutting move in March. Assuming Jenkins won’t be ready for the start of the season, Nijman, Van Lanen, Newman and Rhyan all could make a play for the job.

“The best guys will play,” Newman said. “It’s pretty early now to tell who’s going to be who (since) we don’t have pads on. So, we’ll see what happens in the fall.”

And thereafter. Given how much shuffling the Packers offensive line endured the past two seasons, there’s no telling who might have to step up. And unlike past years when the Packers carried a veteran swing tackle (Jared Veldheer in 2019, Ricky Wagner in 2020 and Dennis Kelly last season), the depth chart is far more youthful entering 2022.

“You think about the last three playoff games we played with three veteran right tackles who didn’t play a lot during the season in Jared and Rick and Dennis,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got some young kids in the mix, but I like where the line’s at.

“Every time you look at the line during training camp, you’re thinking, ‘Who’s going to be the five? Who’s going to be the 10th?’ And then at the end of the season, you’ve got guys playing you may not have expected to play well and they’re out there balling. So I don’t ever worry about that group.“

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