GREEN BAY, Wis. — You’ll have to excuse David Bakhtiari for being out of the loop on the NFL news cycle lately.
With the start of training camp, the Green Bay Packers franchise left tackle hasn’t been logging onto his Twitter account as much – in a related story, risqué references to his jersey number are down precipitously on the social media platform – so he wasn’t up to speed on some of the blockbuster contracts handed out to his left-tackle brethren late last week.
When told of the extensions – Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan getting a five-year, $80 deal from the Titans, Atlanta’s Jake Matthews getting a five-year, $75 million deal from the Falcons – Bakhtiari gasped.
“That,” he said, eyes wide, “is awesome.”
For them, sure. But for Bakhtiari? He’d inked a four-year, $48 million extension on the eve of the 2016 season that runs through the 2020 season. Wasn’t he suddenly vastly underpaid, comparatively speaking?
“Nah,” came the reply. “That’s great. That’s great for the market, great for the league, great for players — I’m just hoping that continues, not only on the left tackle position but all across the board.
“When you sign a deal like that, you get a weight lifted off your shoulders. You definitely feel appreciated. I was told by older guys like (ex-teammate) Josh (Sitton), when he signed his deal, ‘It’s like hitting the lottery.’ It’s life-changing money. You can secure your life and your kids’ life and you appreciate that. I’m not going to sit here and complain about my situation, because that’d make me an (expletive).
“I’m very fortunate in where I’m at, and I’m truly happy for those guys and where they’re at. And I’m hoping we continue to see more people have that happen. I understand we compete against each other, the 31 other left tackles in the league, but we also work together to the same end.”
For Bakhtiari, competition isn’t about dollars and cents. From a team perspective, obviously, it’s about winning – something the Packers have done a lot of since he became the starting left tackle as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2013 – and getting to a Super Bowl, which hasn’t happened (despite two NFC Championship Game appearances) since his arrival. Individually, it’s about respect – which he’s received, albeit not to the extent many feel he deserves.
Bakhtiari has been a Pro Bowl alternate each of the past two seasons – but he was named second-team All-Pro both years. He accepted an invitation to play as an injury replacement two years ago, but when he got the chance again last year to replace Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson, he passed.
“I did get a call, but I didn’t go. So I’m a two-time All-Pro and a one-time Pro Bowler,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s entertaining to me.
“I was just talking to Clay (Matthews) about this the other day. The thing about football, it really fulfills my need and thirst for competing. If we were to really break it down, do I enjoy bruising and beating my body? Do I enjoy smashing heads every day? I don’t think anyone can say that’s really fun. If you do, I think you need to check into a clinic. But for me, the competitive side for it – every day, being challenged, and every day proving yourself to yourself and others – that’s what really fills that need for me. That’s what really drives me. It’s a lot of fun.”
So beyond competition, what does matter to him?
“Any external recognition is flattering, to say the least. But I said it when I was younger and I’ll say it until the Green Bay Packers decide to move in a different direction, and until the end of my career: As long as my quarterback’s happy and appreciates the way I play, (as well as) the coaches and the guys who are writing my checks, that’s the only recognition I truly care about,” Bakhtiari said. “And my family. A little bit.”
Aaron Rodgers certainly appreciates him. Not only have the two grown to be good friends and spend their offseasons training and hanging out in southern California, but Rodgers believes the mental part of Bakhtiari’s game is unparalleled.
“He’s a rare football player,” Rodgers said. “He’s so talented, and he understands the game a little differently than some tackles we’ve had around here over the years. It does help when you understand rotations. The center obviously has to have a little bit of a stronger grasp of the defense and rotations, kind of after myself. But shoot, if the left tackle is paying attention to that stuff and can still block the guy over him, that’s awesome.
“We have a lot of fun off the field. His family is a fantastic family. They’re a lot of fun to be around. Spent some time with them around the holidays last year. Anytime it’s dinner at the Bakhtiari’s, you can sign me up.”
While Bakhtiari and left guard Lane Taylor have reached a point entering their third year together that much of their communication is unspoken, there’s some training-camp uncertainty on the right side of the line. Veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga is on the physically unable to perform list but is expected to be ready for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against Chicago, and the right guard job is an open competition, although at this point, it looks like it’s Justin McCray’s job to lose.
Coach Mike McCarthy said last week that ideally, he’d like to have the line lineup set by Week 3 of the preseason – for the Packers’ Aug. 24 game at Oakland – but it’s not essential. One thing he doesn’t need to worry about is Rodgers’ blind-side protector.
“When you have a right-handed quarterback, the left tackle is important. (That’s) stating the obvious,” McCarthy said. “You really would like to play each week where you don’t have to help one of the tackles. History will tell you that you may have to help one of them some of the time. Obviously it depends on the opponent. (But) if you have the ability to never help your tackles, then it gives you the opportunity to be more aggressive in how you threaten the defense from a perimeter standpoint.”
Bakhtiari, who turns 27 on Sept. 30, clearly gives McCarthy that. But after last year’s lineup-juggling experience – the Packers started seven different offensive line combinations in the first seven games and finished the year having lined up with 10 different starting combinations out of their 16 games – Bakhtiari is hoping that the entire group can stay healthy.
Last year, Bakhtiari hurt his hamstring late in the team’s season-opening win over Seattle and missed the next four games. He aggravated the injury during the team’s Oct. 15 loss at Minnesota – in which Rodgers broke his right collarbone – but started the following week against New Orleans and didn’t miss a snap the rest of the year.
The last time the Packers had a full season of offensive line health was in 2014, when one starter missed one game (Bulaga, who sat out a Week 2 game against the New York Jets with a knee injury) and the line was the most cohesive it’s been during Bakhtiari’s tenure.
“We rotated so much last year because of the injuries, across the board,” Bakhtiari said. “The No. 1 thing to great chemistry is, like coach McCarthy likes to say, the lines that are the best lines are the ones that are out there for 16 all games together. And honestly, our closest years (in terms of chemistry) were our years where we were all out there together.
“Because being a line together, we’re all going through the same experience together, we’re all going through the same grind, we’re all experiencing the same bumps and bruises. So that’s a really big thing for us this year, to really get five guys and knock out a whole 16-game regular season and then push through the playoffs. I think that would really solidify us.”