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Dougherty: When might David Bakhtiari return and how can Packers cope without him?

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GREEN BAY - David Bakhtiari’s torn ACL didn’t just cost the Green Bay Packers their All-Pro left tackle for the playoffs.

It’s also complicated their 2021 plans, because they know they won’t have him for the start of the regular season and can’t be sure when he’ll be ready to return to their starting lineup.

In an offseason when All-Pro center Corey Linsley is a decent bet to leave the Packers in free agency, a starting line that was one of the team’s strength in 2020 will look much different to start 2021.

I talked with an orthopedist for other NFL teams who said that while recovery from ACL reconstructions has improved over the last 10 to 15 years, there are some things in coming back that no level of commitment to rehabilitation can speed up.

Bakhtiari sustained his torn ACL in practice Dec. 30, and it’s almost a given in today’s NFL that the Packers will wait at minimum a full nine months before giving him the OK to play even if his rehabilitation goes perfectly. That makes it safe to assume he won’t be ready to play until early October at the earliest, best case. And it wouldn’t be unusual for his recovery to take a month or two longer, which would mean he’d miss half the season or more.

On the other hand, though not a given, chances are Bakhtiari will play in 2021 even though he injured his knee the week of the regular-season finale last year.

“NFL players have been consistent over (the last 15 years) that it’s nine to 11 (months),” the doctor said. “Confident it’s safe. The nine (months) gives you a lot less complications than if you try seven.

“… Every time guys come back at six, seven months they have so many problems. Stuff just comes up even if they play well. They wind up with more patellar tendinitis, more swelling in their knee that makes it linger longer.”

There are a couple of reasons players need at least nine months to return without undue risk of problems down the road.

The first is that the new ligament graft, which usually is taken from the patellar tendon (with a small chunk of bone still attached on each end), needs up to eight months to go through ligamentization. That is, the tendon goes through biological remodeling that makes it ligament-like.

Second, the body’s neuromuscular system needs about a full year to recover completely. That’s why you often hear players say they don’t really feel right until their second season coming back from an ACL tear.

The doctor said the ACL is made up of about 3 percent neurons that have to regenerate in the new ligament. Those neurons tell the brain subconsciously where the knee is in space and movement. The doctor said he has players wear a brace from seven to nine months into their recovery, when they’re back doing football movements, not because the knee needs the support but because the brace on the skin helps retrain the brain’s connection to the new ACL.

That process also requires reforming the neuromuscular system of the injured leg. The coordinated firing of the muscles in complex movements takes a year to be fully restored.

“That’s what takes so long,” the doctor said. “We have some new tools that have been great helping with strengthening. Don’t know that we have any new tools that are great for athletic movement re-education.”

One example to look to is former Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, who was back practicing part time in training camp almost exactly nine months after his torn ACL in the middle of the 2017 season. He played in the 2018 opener, almost to the day 10 months after his injury.

Even best case, the Packers are likely to be without Bakhtiari for at least the first three or four games.

So who is going to be their left tackle to start the season? In Zoom interviews with reporters last week general manager Brian Gutekunst named three possible replacements in Billy Turner, Elgton Jenkins and Yosh Nijman.

This could go any number of ways depending on what offensive linemen the Packers add in free agency and/or the draft. At least for now, it still looks like they won’t be signing Linsley — their priority appears to be running back Aaron Jones, though his return isn’t a given either — which means the Packers probably will have two openings in their starting line, at tackle and center.

Jones and Linsley are very good players, and prioritizing one is very much a gray-area call. But Jones, in my mind, should be the higher priority.

Linsley plays a key role in protecting Aaron Rodgers, but Jones’ threat as a runner does the same.

There’s injury risk for both, the 26-year-old Jones more obviously because of his position and injury history. But Linsley turns 30 in July and has had recurring back issues.

Their cost is probably similar — likely in the range of a $12 million average — though the franchise tag on Linsley is prohibitive (projected to be nearly $14 million, according to Over The Cap), whereas for Jones it’s more manageable (a little more than $8 million). It’s a close call, but I’d go Jones.

In the meantime, Jenkins’ ability to play all five line positions at a high level affords the Packers flexibility in filling in for Bakhtari and replacing Linsley, if that’s how it goes.

Jenkins and Turner could be the tackles, and Lucas Patrick and second-year pro Jon Runyan could take two of the three starting spots inside. Patrick could play either guard or center. Then a free-agent signing — for instance, might the Packers try to bring back guard Lane Taylor, who missed the season after sustaining a torn ACL in Week 1, on the cheap? — could take the third.

The Packers also could play a draft pick at any of the five spots on the line.

And Nijman is a wild card. If he makes a big jump in the offseason, he could be a starter at tackle, and Jenkins (center or guard) or Turner (guard) could revert inside. Nijman was undrafted in 2019 but is a good athlete for a huge man (6-7, 314) and reportedly ran an exceptional 4.88-second 40 at his pro day at Virginia Tech. He spent most of ’19 on the Packers’ practice squad and all of last season on the 53-man roster, though he played only 14 garbage-time snaps on offense.

If I were the Packers, I’d plan on playing Jenkins at left tackle and filling an inside spot with a free agent or rookie. Jenkins is their most talented lineman other than Bakhtiari, so they might as well put him at the most important position on the line until Bakhtiari returns.

No matter which way they go, though, they know Bakhtiari won’t be playing to start the season. Their best hope is he'll be back by halfway through the 2021 season and close to his old self by January ’22.

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