This has been David Bakhtiari’s path: The player that nobody wanted to the player that can’t be replaced.
“I’ve always enjoyed people telling me what I can’t do,” Bakhtiari said early in training camp. “In high school, I didn’t play until my senior year and my coach always told me, ‘As long as I’m the head coach, you’re never going to set foot on my field and start.’ Colleges were telling me I’m too small, not strong enough. NFL telling me I’m a guard or center. I’m like, ‘That’s cool. That’s fine, but you’re going to wish I was out there.’ Obviously, Green Bay liked what they saw in me and I was able to get my opportunities and ran away with them.”
The Packers selected Bakhtiari in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, making him the ninth offensive tackle and the 109th player overall off the board. At the time, the Packers’ offensive line plans didn’t really include Bakhtiari. Rather, the team moved Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle. Instead, Bulaga went down with a knee injury on Family Night. Bakhtiari got his shot and never looked back.
Other than last year’s ankle injury that sidelined him for the final two regular-season games and the playoff opener at Washington, Bakhtiari has started every game at left tackle in his three-plus seasons. Once he finally got past a preseason knee injury, he didn’t allow a sack in his final 10 games. He was the seventh-best pass-blocking left tackle in the league during that period, according to Pro Football Focus.
This is an ascending player who won’t turn 25 until Sept. 30.
“Every year, technique’s huge, strength is huge,” Bakhtiari said. “I’m only 24. I had a real good offseason — probably my strongest offseason — and I’m healthy and feeling in condition. All of those things come together. From the years of understanding the game, I’ve been able to pick up on things. ‘OK, obviously the guy wants to bull rush me. How can I manipulate what he wants to do against him?’ The proof is in the pudding.”
It’s been a meteoric rise for Bakhtiari, who, in his own words, “sucked” during his early years at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, Calif.
“I was a 16-year-old senior — 16 turning 17 — and I was 6-1, like 200 pounds my junior year,” Bakhtiari recalled. “My senior year, I was like 6-5, 240, which to me was big; to these guys (his fellow linemen), they laugh. Everything just made sense my senior year. I didn’t think I should start any of those years and I’m happy that I didn’t. I was fortunate that everything’s just been a continuous progression. High school, everything made sense. College, I picked up the game quicker. Pros, picked up the game even quicker than that. I’ve enjoyed being able to see myself progress. That’s why I love the attention to detail, the practices, the little things where I can focus on me. That’s a huge part of my game.”
Also huge was his older brother, Eric, who played linebacker for the Titans and 49ers. It was a phone conversation with Eric when he was a 19-year-old at Colorado that brought his NFL dreams into a sharp focus.
“My brother, he was in the league and he had a bunch of buddies on the Titans and one of them was a scout,” Bakhtiari said. “He said, ‘Guess what? Guess whose film I’m looking at?’ He told me he’s looking at my film. (The scout) said, ‘Tell your brother that if he keeps on progressing, he’s got a real shot.’
“Eric’s been a huge part of my life. Ever since high school, when he moved back (to California) and he was playing on the Niners, he’s always taught me, giving me the hints and pointers. What’s the new protein to take? What’s the new workout? What to do against this rush or that rush — because he was a pass rusher. It was huge. When he told me that, it was like, ‘I’m not going to take this like a joke. I’m going to start treating this like a job.’”
Bakhtiari has been all business ever since. Not only has he gotten bigger and stronger during the course of his career, but he’s gotten smarter, as well. Talent and intellect generally equate to a winning performance.
“He’s improved every offseason, and I think that’s a testament to him,” offensive line coach James Campen said during training camp. “You really start cataloging rushers, people you’ll see. You’ll look at other people’s sets, other tackles’ sets. ‘How did they do against this person or that person?’ I think that’s really part of the growth for him. And the kid has gotten stronger every year. He’s gained weight, he’s gained strength, so he’s doing all the things necessary to continue on an upward trend. He’s doing a nice job with that, and he’s durable as hell. He had a little hiccup last year but he’s a very durable player. Look, you have to fight through some of those things. And he’s certainly done that.”
Is Bakhtiari worthy of being the fourth-highest-paid left tackle in the league? Maybe not. Just don’t tell Bakhtiari that he’s not capable of becoming that dominant.
“When people tell me something I can’t do, I’m not the type of guy who says, ‘I can’t do it. OK, you’re right, I’m wrong.’ It’s, ‘How can I make it work?’ I’m not the tallest or weigh the most, but I’m pretty (darned) strong and I just use what my attributes are that other people don’t have to my advantage.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.