They have two key players who fit into that category.
Yet listening to coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst answer questions at the NFL owners meetings last week, it still sounds like they plan to count heavily on Pro Bowl offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins and big-play tight end Robert Tonyan.
Tonyan tore the ACL in his left knee on Oct. 28 against the Arizona Cardinals. His agent, Jack Bechta, reported it as “a clean tear" with no other damage. Jenkins tore his, also in the left knee and with no other complications, three-and-a-half weeks later against the Minnesota Vikings.
Bakhtiari’s struggle to return was one of the biggest storylines of the Packers’ 2021 season. Because he tore his left ACL so late in the previous season -- it happened in practice on Dec. 31, 2020 -- Bakhtiari’s availability for Week 1 was always a long shot.
It wasn’t a surprise when he started the season on the physically unable to perform list, but the longer it took him to come back, the more perplexing the situation became. He first practiced in early November but then missed another month. He then underwent a second surgery to clean out scar tissue with the hope that fluid would stop building. He finally played in the regular-season finale, going 27 snaps against the Lions in what was supposed to be a tune-up for the playoffs. More issues arose and he never made it back for the postseason.
“People say, ‘Oh it’s an ACL, he should be back next year no problem,’” ESPN injury analyst Stephania Bell said. “False. The sports medicine community has gotten really good at surgically repairing and rehabbing athletes within the spectrum of ACL injuries, but it’s not perfect, and you can see why.
“Typically we think of 9-12 months as an average recovery time, but it’s an average for a reason. Sometimes NFL players beat that timeline, sometimes they exceed that timeline -- which could be due to any number of factors. Typically guys who were injured in the preseason or the first two months of the season have an advantage in the extra time afforded them before there are any games on the calendar.”
The Packers say they’re confident Bakhtiari will be back to full strength by the start of this season, and that their 2021 ACL players -- which also includes running back/kick returner Kylin Hill, who tore his in the same game as Tonyan -- won’t face the same kind of roadblocks.
“Recency bias would lead one to think that if you’ve got a bad experience with one ACL, maybe you can’t trust the others,” said former NFL team physician David Chao, who analyzes injuries for the website SportsInjuryCentral.com. “But not all ACLs are the same. Bakhtiari’s was reported as an ACL, but clearly it was more. The key on those guys is, what’s the more? If they have more, then yes there could be issues going forward. But if Jenkins and Tonyan were clean, which it sounds they were, they’re better off.”
Without the injury, Tonyan might have been one of the top free-agent tight ends. Instead, he returned to the Packers on a one-year, $3.75 million deal.
Gutekunst wouldn’t put a timeline on clearing Tonyan, but he said he’s “ahead of schedule.”
“We won’t close the door on anything early, if it’s possible,” Gutekunst said. “But at the same time, you guys know how important he’s going to be to our offense. So, we’ll be cautious as we go through that, too, to make sure he’s available for the whole year.”
Tonyan’s return became even more critical after the trade of Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders. While they play different positions, Tonyan is primarily a pass-catching tight end who can operate both on the perimeter and in the middle of the field.
More important than just his return is a return to his pre-injury form, combined with LaFleur’s desire to scheme more for him than he did last season before the injury. It was in LaFleur’s second season, 2020, when Tonyan broke out with 52 catches and 11 touchdowns. His 2021 pace wasn’t anywhere near those numbers.
“Just kind of reflecting and looking back to last season, he didn’t quite get as many opportunities as he did the previous year up to that point,” LaFleur said. “But I know he’ll come back. I don’t foresee him being any different.
“Physically, I think he’ll be ready to go. I think there’s still a lot of room for growth in his game. Getting a guy that is the way he works, how intelligent he is, that’s great for us. Certainly, he’s got a rapport with Aaron [Rodgers], which is a big deal, as well.”
Jenkins’ return impacts the way the Packers will shape their offensive line. He made the Pro Bowl as a left guard in 2020 but then moved to left tackle in place of Bakhtiari. Assuming Bakhtiari holds down the left tackle spot, then perhaps Jenkins could go back to left guard, leaving Jon Runyan and Royce Newman to compete at right guard. Right tackle could be the best place for Jenkins considering the Packers cut Billy Turner this offseason, but the Packers may try Yosh Nijman there.
“We’re midway through kind of his thing, but [Jenkins is] doing great so far,” Gutekunst said. “[He’s] another guy that just does stuff the right way. I can’t say enough about Elgton and his ability to play all five spots in the National Football League at a high level. There’s just not many guys in this league that can do that.”
It will be nearly impossible to tell anything about the progress by Tonyan or Jenkins during the offseason program. They won’t be cleared in time to take the field for OTAs or even the June minicamp. The first indicator will be whether they start training camp on PUP and whether they come off it at some point during training camp. And even then, it’s one thing to be cleared for participation but another to be deemed ready to play.
“Clearance for return to play is just that: no medical reason to keep players from participating in all levels of activity,” Bell said. “Return to performance is really about returning to an elite level within the athlete’s sport at the athlete’s specific position. That takes longer. Sometimes players don’t really achieve that highest level until they’re already competing, and that’s OK because game play is truly the final phase of rehab."