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With Guarded Optimism, Packers Ready to Tackle Jenkins’ Return

If Green Bay Packers Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins returns to face the Chicago Bears on Sunday, will he replace Yosh Nijman at left tackle or Jon Runyan at left guard?
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – If Pro Bowl offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins returns to the starting lineup this week, it will be a good-news, good-news scenario for the Green Bay Packers.

First and foremost, Jenkins is one of the best blockers in the NFL. A dominant guard last season, he transitioned to left tackle so well during training camp that there was little concern about how the absence of All-Pro David Bakhtiari would cause the offense to implode. During the opening games against New Orleans and Detroit, Jenkins played to those lofty expectations. After missing the last three games with an injured ankle, his return would be welcomed for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears, who possess one of the top front sevens in the NFL.

“They’re a great defense,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week. “They’ve always been a solid defense over the years. Robert Quinn’s having a nice season getting after the quarterback. Obviously, Khalil (Mack) is still one of the top players in the league. Akiem Hicks when he’s healthy is as disruptive as you can possibly be. Roquan (Smith) has emerged as a top-tier linebacker. He’s a complete linebacker. Chicago has always prided themselves on stout defenses and, in the 27 games I’ve played against them, you know what kind of day you’re going to be in for playing Chicago.”

Assuming Jenkins is ready to go, the question is where he will line up. Coach Matt LaFleur has said time and again that the goal is to get his best five linemen on the field. So, is that Jenkins at left tackle and Jon Runyan at left guard? Or is it Yosh Nijman at left tackle and Jenkins at left guard?

By now, that question has been answered.

“Usually by Friday so you can get that last day of practice in and everyone’s feeling good about where they’re playing,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said.

There are pros and cons to each possibility.

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Based on how the Bears have lined up this season, whoever lines up at left tackle will have to deal primarily with Robert Quinn along with a smattering of Khalil Mack. In his 11th season, Quinn has 87 career sacks. After posting 11.5 sacks with Dallas in 2019, he was an enormous disappointment in Year 1 with Chicago with just two sacks in 15 games. He’s returned to form, though, with 4.5 sacks to open this season.

Nijman has played well the last three weeks. He allowed two sacks last week against Cincinnati standout Trey Hendrickson, though one of those came on an extended play just before halftime. His play has even surprised Stenavich – the man who made the call on going with Nijman at left tackle in the first place.

“Just how well he’s played in general over these last few games against the competition that he has” has been a surprise, Stenavich said. “There have been some ups and downs. Like with any young player with not a lot of experience, it’s just about the fundamentals that you play with and putting yourself in the best position to succeed. But he has been pretty consistent. The one thing I like about him is just his physicality. He has flashed some pretty good physicality on film, which has been good. I’m excited about where he can go in the future.”

If the Packers were to stick with Nijman, Jenkins would go back to left guard and Runyan would go back to the bench. That’s where he started the season after failing to win the starting job in training camp. However, after Lucas Patrick suffered a concussion in the opening game against New Orleans, Runyan was thrust into the lineup and has stepped up his game. In four starts, he hasn’t allowed a sack and has shown some power in the run game.

“He may have been disappointed in how he played in camp and knew that, ‘If I get another opportunity, I’m not going to let it slip away,’” Stenavich said. “He’s just playing more fundamentally sound than he was in camp. I think every game you play as a young guy, you can always see it: They just get a little bit better and a little bit better and a little bit better until they become a more polished player, and I think Jon’s doing that. He’s definitely improving every time he goes out there. He’s very conscious about his fundamentals and putting himself in the right position to succeed. He always plays with great effort and he’s got good athleticism. So, once you put yourself and your body in the right position, you definitely have a chance to block anybody.”

Presumably, the Packers would feel better having Jenkins protecting Rodgers’ blind side against the mighty Bears front, though there’s something to be said for Nijman being in a groove with almost 200 snaps the last three games. On the other hand, there’s a long view. Bakhtiari can start practicing next week. Considering he hasn’t practiced in about nine-and-a-half months, it would seem highly unlikely that he’ll be back in the lineup for next week against Washington or on a short week at Arizona. Nonetheless, Bakhtiari will be returning. If the Packers go with Nijman at left tackle, Jenkins can settle back in at left guard. Or, there’s the longer view of a potential 2022 lineup of Runyan at left guard and Jenkins at right tackle.

It's a good conundrum to have for Stenavich, who has been an unsung hero in the team’s success for his work in dealing with injuries to Bakhtiari and Jenkins and the growing pains of rookies Josh Myers and Royce Newman.

“The expectations are for the position, it’s not for the guy,” Stenavich said. “So, whoever’s lining up at left tackle, whoever’s lining up at guard, whoever it is, that’s the standard you have to play with.”


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