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Nijman Becomes Next, Next Man Up

With David Bakhtiari's uncertain return and Elgton Jenkins out for the season, the Green Bay Packers' championship hopes could rest on the nimble feet of Yosh Nijman.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – If not for the ACL tear that David Bakhtiari sustained on the practice field on New Year’s Eve, the Green Bay Packers probably would have gone to last year’s Super Bowl.

Can the Packers, aggressively built to win this year’s Super Bowl, survive without Bakhtiari and his top-flight replacement?

Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins solidified his status as one of the NFL’s best offensive linemen by capably replacing Bakhtiari for eight of the first 11 games of this season. Now that Jenkins is out with the knee injury sustained during the fourth quarter at Minnesota on Sunday, the Packers are down to their next, next man up, Yosh Nijman.

“It’s unfortunate,” coach Matt LaFleur said on Monday. “Elgton’s been a big part of this team. It’s just one of those deals that it’s an unfortunate part of our game, and we’ve had a lot of guys unfortunately have to go through this this year. Luckily, we’ve got (Nijman). Yosh has been playing some good ball for us, and we’ve got other guys, as well. And eventually we’ll get David back, I think, and we’ll just handle it week to week.”

Nijman started three games with Jenkins sidelined by an ankle injury and played well in victories over San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. Now, the fate of the season might rest on his broad shoulders and gifted feet.

After practicing for three weeks, the five-time All-Pro Bakhtiari was added to the 53-man roster on the Wednesday before the Week 10 game vs. Seattle. But he didn’t practice on that Friday, then didn’t practice at all last week. If his comeback didn’t suffer a setback, it at least hit a roadblock. He won’t practice this week, either, LaFleur said, and the team will “see where he’s at” after next week’s bye.

“We’re hopeful that he’ll be able to come back this year at some point,” LaFleur said. “It isn't for a lack of work ethic on his part. It’s not for a lack of toughness. It’s just one of those things where you never quite know how everybody’s going to respond to the recovery process.”

It's a potentially brutal turn of events. With Bakhtiari on the comeback trail, there was optimism the offense would take off with Bakhtiari and Jenkins back on the field together. Now, with Jenkins’ season-ending injury and Bakhtiari’s uncertain status, there’s a chance the team won’t have either player the rest of the way.

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Getting back the team’s All-Pro cornerback, All-Pro left tackle and Pro Bowl outside linebacker, to state the obvious, would be a huge lift to the 9-3 Packers.

Left tackle is a premium position. By average contract, left tackles are three of the nine highest-paid non-quarterbacks in the NFL. Of the 32 starters, 17 were selected in the first round.

Nijman went undrafted in 2019. He spent his first two seasons on the practice squad but made the roster this summer. With Bakhtiari sidelined and Jenkins kept in mothballs for the preseason, Nijman took advantage of the heavy workload. With Jenkins out with an ankle injury, Nijman made his first NFL start at San Francisco. He survived a difficult opening series against Nick Bosa to turn in an eye-opening performance.

“We talked earlier this week about, I was talking to Steno, and I said, ‘Who do you want there?’ And he said, ‘Yosh,’” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after that game. “(And I said), ‘Yosh? Really?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ He’s a very soft-spoken, quiet guy, great young kid. And Dave (Bakhtiari) always talks about how good his feet are. He said he’s got the best feet for any lineman. I’m just really proud of the way he battled.”

Nijman was proud, too. Asked what it meant given his path, Nijman got a bit emotional.

“It’s just been a journey,” he said. “I’ve just been trying to be diligent in my doing. I just feel like the coaches trusted me. They had confidence in me. I had confidence in myself, so I think that duo, I was able to actually go out and execute. I just knew I had my teammates, my coaches supporting me as I was supporting the team. That’s what it means. It means that’s just the belief factor. Coaches believing in me and believing in this team and just no hiccups. There might be some little things here and there, but we got the job done.”

Thrust into a difficult situation on Sunday, Nijman got the job done during the fourth quarter at Minnesota, helping keep the comeback alive. He’ll face a huge challenge on Sunday. The Rams’ edge rushers are perennial Pro Bowler Von Miller and Leonard Floyd. Floyd, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks, rushes mostly against the left tackle.

If Bakhtiari isn’t back after the bye, two more premier right-side pass rushers, Chicago’s Leonard Floyd and Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, are on the docket. Tampa Bay’s Shaq Barrett and Dallas’ Randy Gregory could loom in the playoffs.

Jenkins’ brilliance allowed LaFleur to run his offense basically unchanged. Going to Nijman might require some adjustments, but he was up to the task against the 49ers’ Bosa and the Bengals’ Trey Hendrickson.

“Every week you look at your opponent and who they have, what you’re going against, not only schematically but from a personnel perspective, as well,” LaFleur said. “And any time you’re playing a team like the L.A. Rams that has multiple, dynamic pieces on their defensive line, it presents some challenges and it definitely influences how you gameplan and the things that you’re going to ask your players to do.”


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