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Without Bakhtiari, Nijman’s Had Rodgers’ Back

As David Bakhtiari struggles through a knee injury, Yosh Nijman has been a revelation at left tackle for the Green Bay Packers. Here’s his story and his matchup for Sunday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Almost exactly one year ago, with David Bakhtiari on injured reserve and Elgton Jenkins out with an ankle injury, the Green Bay Packers were forced to turn to Yosh Nijman for a Week 3 showdown at the San Francisco 49ers.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year already. It’s been fun. It’s been a lot of fun,” Nijman said on Friday, a couple days before perhaps starting another Week 3 showdown, this one at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Nijman’s come a long way over the past 12 months. During the opening series of that game against the 49ers on Sept. 26, it looked like he was going to be eaten alive by Nick Bosa. After a few plays, though, Nijman settled in and the Packers earned an upset victory.

“For someone to play their first NFL game against a Pro Bowler, you’re like, ‘Holy smokes,’” Nijman said. “I wasn’t even really thinking about that aspect, it was that I had to stay in front of him. I did it and I was like, ‘OK, I can do it.’ So, I kept doing it.”

Fast forward 12 months, Nijman is a different player. He started eight games last season and the first two games of this season. He’s gone from “genetic specimen,” as left guard Jon Runyan called him this week, to reliable starter. In 10 career starts, Pro Football Focus has charged him with only three sacks.

“Yeah, confidence. The cliched things,” Nijman said of where he’s grown. “You’re prepared, you’re ready, you have experience. That’s what it is. Now, I’m so much more excited than I ever was given the fact that I have so much experience playing. It’s fun to be playing every week at the highest level. It’s really cool.”

Nijman was a perplexing player entering the 2019 draft. He had the measureables – 6-foot-7, 34 1/8-inch arms, 4.88 speed in the 40 and an elite Relative Athletic Score. He had the resume as a three-year starter at Virginia Tech. You could hardly draw up a better offensive line prospect. Nijman, though, went undrafted. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad and essentially played only on special teams in 2020.

“You’ve got to put in the work when no one’s here,” Nijman said. “Every time I left the facility, I was working on my steps and doing what I had to do to really show what I can do on film and on the field and at practice. Two years of that, three years of that and I’m still doing it.”

Packers offensive tackle Yosh Nijman blocks Danielle Hunter during Week 1 at the Vikings. (Photo by Mark Hoffman/USA Today Sports)

Packers offensive tackle Yosh Nijman blocks Danielle Hunter during Week 1 at the Vikings. (Photo by Mark Hoffman/USA Today Sports)

When he started against San Francisco, Nijman played his first meaningful snaps from scrimmage.

“I had to learn the ins and outs a little bit more,” he said. “I had to learn how to have a consistent kick-step and know where to place my hands. It’s still the same game. At the professional level, you have to know what works best for you with your body and how to work it on the field. That was the big takeaway: Knowing how to get to my second step faster, where to put my eyes, how to get off the snap count, knowing blitzes and expanding my knowledge of the game.”

Offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich has been there for every step of Nijman’s progress. He was the team’s offensive line coach from 2019 through 2021, so he’s seen his rise from raw rookie to reliable starter. Runyan’s seen it, too, especially with Nijman stationed just a few feet to his left at practice and during games.

“Playing against a Pro Bowler like Robert Quinn [last week], he had [18.5 sacks] last year. That’s insane,” Runyan said. “He got Yosh a few times but Yosh, undrafted guy, practice squad his first year, injured his second year, battled back through that. He’s a great story. He’s a really solid starting left tackle in the NFL going against these great D-ends.

“I think back to last year when we played the Browns on Christmas and Myles Garrett’s out there and I don’t think he gave up a sack to Myles, which is just incredible. Watching him and being next to him, just us riding this out together, it’s really awesome seeing him grow and me being a part of it and having his inside, literally. It’s been cool.”

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There’s no doubt quarterback Aaron Rodgers misses the presence of Bakhtiari, the “Big Giraffe” he counts among his closest friends. A five-time All-Pro, he was the gold standard of a critically important position before the injury. But Nijman has played well enough that Rodgers trusts the blind-side protection.

“Very steady guy. He never gets too high or too low,” Rodgers said. “The fun things that we saw last year, him bringing the Robot out and the personality started to come out a little bit, I think you saw that as he got more comfortable. But he’s always been real easy-going and steady and stoic. You don’t really worry a whole lot about him.”

With a bunch of strong performances against elite pass rushers under his belt, Nijman has gone from supersized question mark to a proven performer. Who knows where the Packers would be without him given the state of Bakhtiari’s comeback.

On Sunday at Tampa Bay, the matchup will be against the Buccaneers’ Shaquil Barrett, who led the NFL in sacks in 2019. Over the last three-plus seasons, according to Next Gen Stats, Barrett is second in the league in pressures behind Rams star Aaron Donald. Barrett had two sacks and a forced fumble at the Saints last week. With Bakhtiari out for the 2020 NFC Championship Game, Barrett dominated with three sacks.

A year after making his first NFL start, Nijman now enters each game with the belief that he can beat whoever lines up across from him.

“That’s the kind of mind-set you want to have going into a game,” he said. “You don’t want to play a game thinking, ‘Oh, man, this guy’s going to mop the floor with me.’ That’s not a good way to start your game out. That’s the mind-set going into every game.”

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