Note: This is the fifth in a series of positional stories focused on the big story lines entering Week 1 of the NFL season.
GREEN BAY, Wis. – On the list of the Green Bay Packers’ biggest questions entering the 2021 NFL season, Elgton Jenkins replacing David Bakhtiari as Aaron Rodgers’ blind-side protector barely is on anyone’s radar.
Jenkins’ stellar work on the practice field during training camp helped ease those concerns.
“I love it,” Jenkins said on Monday of the team’s confidence in him. “It’s a challenge to me, going out there and playing at the same standard as Bak did. I love it they had the confidence in me, and I have the confidence in myself to go out there and just keep the ball rolling and hold it down until 69 gets back.”
Left tackles don’t grow on trees, which is why the position is so coveted. Entering Week 1, 19 of the projected 32 starters were selected in the first round. That’s actually down a bit from previous seasons. Jenkins, a second-round pick in 2019, has blossomed into a Pro Bowl guard. Forced to left tackle with the All-Pro Bakhtiari sidelined by last year’s torn ACL, Jenkins had an excellent training camp. But practice is practice, which is why general manager Brian Gutekunst is cautiously optimistic.
“I’m very confident that he can go do this at a high level,” Gutekunst said last week. “How good he can be? We’ll see. He’s exceeded expectations in everything we’ve ever asked him to do. So, we feel confident, but left tackle in the National Football League is not an easy thing and this is going to be a challenge for him.”
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Jenkins has a little experience at left tackle. Last season, when Bakhtiari suffered broken ribs at the end of the first half at San Francisco, the coaches asked Jenkins in the locker room if he wanted to play right tackle (which would move Billy Turner to left tackle) or left tackle. Jenkins chose left tackle and played 27 snaps.
“I didn’t play at that the previous season, so I was like, I might as well just go out there (and) get that under my belt, too,” Jenkins said with a smile.
While that was for fun against the depleted 49ers, this will be for real for at least the first six games of the season and perhaps the first eight or more. The season could depend on how he and the rest of a revamped offensive line play during that span.
Maybe Jenkins won’t be the problem. Rather, it could the tip of the iceberg. At left tackle, Jenkins isn’t as good as Bakhtiari. At left guard, presumptive starter Lucas Patrick isn’t as good as Jenkins. At center, rookie Josh Myers isn’t as good as departed All-Pro Corey Linsley. At right guard, rookie Royce Newman might not be as good as Patrick. The only stability is at right tackle with Turner. How that quintet will perform is anyone’s guess after last year’s group powered an offense that led the NFL in scoring and helped Rodgers win MVP.
That’s true for Jenkins, too. He didn’t play in the preseason, meaning the bulk of his preparation came during training camp against Preston Smith and Rashan Gary. He routinely did an excellent job against two high-quality defenders.
“I think the most important thing, which I firmly believe in, is your feet,” Bakhtiari said last month. “Your feet win the block, your hands complement. He’s got really good feet. Just know that, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to move a little bit more, a little bit further, but once you get to the spot, you can turn into a guard and then you can be successful.’”
Jenkins might be eased into things on Sunday against New Orleans. Because of the wrath of Hurricane Ida, the game will be played in Jacksonville – an outdoor venue and, perhaps, a neutral field. The Saints’ top pass rusher, Cam Jordan, historically has lined up almost exclusively at left defensive end, meaning he could be Turner’s problem. Trey Hendrickson, who collected 13.5 sacks last season while rushing against left tackles, signed with Cincinnati in free agency. That means Jenkins will face first-round picks Marcus Davenport (12 sacks in three seasons) and Payton Turner (rookie).
“When you’re blocking for a Hall of Fame quarterback like Aaron, it’s always a high responsibility for all the five guys on the line,” Jenkins said. “We take pride in blocking for him and making sure he stays up, stays clean, just going there and getting the job done.”