The Green Bay Packers have started rookies at left tackle before, with mixed results. They're hoping David Bakhtiari will be more like Chad Clifton and less like John Michels.
General manager Ted Thompson saw Michels, the team's first-round pick in 1996, get pressed into action and bomb. He saw 1997 first-round pick Ross Verba beat out Michels in a head-to-head training-camp battle but fail to be the long-term answer, too. And while Thompson was working in Seattle in 2000, when rookie second-round pick Chad Clifton took over six games into the season and manned the position for the next decade, Thompson was back in time for the final six years of Clifton's career.
Thompson admits he's not sure how Bakhtiari, the team's rookie fourth-round pick who's taking over at left tackle in the wake of Bryan Bulaga's knee injury, will fare. But he isn't panicking about the idea of a 21-year-old kid who could be entering his senior season at the University of Colorado taking over the job of protecting the blindside of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"It's happened before here," Thompson said, somewhat non-chalantly. "I'm sure it's happened in a lot of places. It is what it is."
Although Bulaga was holding out hope of somehow playing through his injury, coach Mike McCarthy announced Wednesday that Bulaga will indeed have surgery and be lost for the season. With Bakhtiari getting the left-tackle nod over Marshall Newhouse, who started 28 games there over the past two seasons (including playoffs), the Packers certainly aren't afraid of the idea of a rookie taking over.
"The left tackle position's a pretty important spot — that's a given. It's a difficult position and that's the reason you see those guys drafted really high every year and that sort of thing," Thompson said. "We've gone to Plan B before and done OK and won some games. We'll do it now."
As Plan Bs go, Bakhtiari certainly has potential. He has been impressive since the first practice in pads on July 28, continued with a strong performance in the scrimmage and didn't seem the least bit nervous in practice Tuesday.
"He's young. He's young, he's raw, he doesn't have the experience, but I think he has the confidence in himself, he's very well coached, and he has good fundamentals," Rodgers said Wednesday. "It's not easy playing left tackle in the NFL, especially when you have a right-handed quarterback. If they stick with him over there, then he's going to have the experience in the fire."
Before Bulaga went down, Bakhtiari had thrust himself into the right tackle competition. Now, he'll work almost exclusively at left tackle in hopes of being ready for the Sept. 8 regular-season opener at San Francisco.
"He definitely has the ability. I think he's shown that, particularly in the spring," said McCarthy, whose team opens preseason play Friday at Lambeau Field against the Arizona Cardinals. "I have no question about his skill set. He's very smart. I think he has one mental error in all of training camp. Going through eight installation practices, that's really good for an offensive lineman, particularly with what he has to do. We'll see what he can do. I'm excited about his opportunity."
Perhaps the most striking quality Bakhtiari possesses is his maturity. He's the youngest of four children, including an older brother, Eric, who has bounced around with seven NFL teams as a linebacker over the past five seasons, playing in only eight regular-season games during that time.
"I've matured very quickly throughout this whole process, learning the plays, adjusting to the speed of the game going against top-tier talent," said Bakhtiari, who started at right tackle as a redshirt freshman, then was the Buffaloes' left tackle the past two seasons before declaring for the draft expecting to be a second-round pick.
"(Eric) helped me with the transition. Coming to the pros, he's been on the hard side of things coming in as an undrafted free agent, trying to claw his way through. So he's given me the horror stories of the NFL. I definitely don't take for granted my situation. It's helped out a lot, his wisdom, and it's been carried on."
If Bakhtiari keeps the job, he'll have the luxury of playing next to the Packers' best lineman, Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. Sitton not only has been helping "get my mind at ease," Bakhtiari said, but he's also been quizzing the rookie, forcing him to make line calls during jog-through sessions to test him
"I've been impressed by him," said Sitton, who moved to the left side during the offseason line shakeup. "He seems to win a lot of his blocks. He's done really well in the one-on-one drills, which is really telling, because the defense has the advantage in that drill (because) they know it's a pass. I'll be fine over there with him, if that's the case. I'll coach him and we'll move forward."
While Bakhtiari wasn't expecting the opportunity he's been given, he said he's ready.
"I'm pretty confident in my talent, but yeah, it's definitely somewhat of a surprise," he said. "You never want to see a fellow teammate go down, especially - you know, Bulaga's really good. But it's a business and you've got to step up to the plate and given certain responsibilities, for me they've given me certain responsibilities and something to take on, so I just have to do it. I can't go sit in a corner. I've got to move on and be very mature about the situation and the transition.
"I didn't think it would happen like this and I wish it didn't happen like this. But it's life. You're thrown curveballs every day and you have to make the most of them, you have to adjust on the fly. That's what I'm doing, making the most and adjusting on the fly."