GREEN BAY, Wis. — Yes, Matt LaFleur is telling you there’s a chance the Green Bay Packers could return a trio of 2020 first- and second-team All-Pros at premium positions for the stretch run.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari, outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander could “potentially” start practicing this week after missing months because of injuries, LaFleur said Monday. Already 9-3 entering last week’s bye, their potential returns for the stretch run could catapult the Packers from a crowded group of NFC contenders to being the clear Super Bowl favorite.
It’s uncertain when Bakhtiari, Smith and Alexander might return. LaFleur said each is doing “everything in their power” to return, and that an update will come when the team returns to the practice field Wednesday.
Even if each returns this week, it’s unlikely their transition back to football will be identical.
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“It’s hard to put them all in the same box,” LaFleur said. “They’re all recovering from different things. So I trust that Flea (head athletic trainer Bryan Engel) and our medical staff have a great plan for these guys in terms of trying to incorporate them back into practice, and then just the whole ready-to-play process for each individual.
“But I wouldn’t say we lump them all into the same kind of category.”
Bakhtiari has not practiced since Nov. 11 because of arthroscopic surgery on his surgically repaired left knee. The two-time, first-team All-Pro left tackle has not played this season after tearing his ACL in Week 17 last year. He is now roughly 11 months from surgery to repair his ACL. The Packers activated Bakhtiari from the physically unable to perform list Nov. 10.
Smith has played only 18 snaps this season, all in the opener against the New Orleans Saints. After missing almost the entirety of training camp, Smith got back surgery a week later and has not practiced since. A second-team All-Pro last season, Smith was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years after signing as a free agent with the Packers, combining for 26 sacks in 2019 and 2020.
Alexander, also a second-team All-Pro last season, injured the AC joint in his shoulder while tackling Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris in Week 4. He has not played since then, missing the Packers’ past eight games. When healthy, Alexander is one of the NFL’s few corners capable of shutting down half the field in coverage.
The Packers will be deliberate with their potential returns. As the setback in Bakhtiari’s return showed, it’s possible to be shut down once returning to practice. That LaFleur even thinks this week is a possibility indicates optimism each can be available at some point this season.
“These guys love the game,” LaFleur said. “They love being with their teammates. They love competing. So I know they’re itching to get back as soon as possible, and we just want to make sure there’s no extra risk for a setback and whatnot. Because obviously they’re an important part of this team, and if we can get these guys back, there’s certainly no guarantees with that. We’re hopeful we can get each of those guys back.”
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Aaron Rodgers' practice availability uncertain
LaFleur said he’s unsure if quarterback Aaron Rodgers will practice this week. Rodgers has been mostly unable to practice because of a broken, left pinkie toe. His hope has been that the toe will heal naturally, instead of requiring surgery.
On "The Pat McAfee Show" last week, Rodgers said he could get surgery early this week and still play Sunday against the Chicago Bears. LaFleur said Monday his quarterback had not gotten surgery.
“I know he was getting treatment and doing everything he can to be 100%,” LaFleur said. “I still think it’s a process, like anything, and we’ll see where he’s at this week. Hopefully we can get him out there at practice, but if not we’ve got a lot of confidence in just his ability to go out there and play at a high level.”
Jordan Love placed on COVID-19/reserve list
The Packers will need to get creative with their practice plan if Rodgers is unable to participate this week. Backup Jordan Love was placed on the COVID-19/reserve list Monday.
Love has said he’s vaccinated against COVID-19, and unvaccinated players are not placed on the list as close contacts. So while the NFL does not confirm whether a player has had a positive test, only a positive test could have placed Love on the list.
Without Love, the Packers are down to just practice-squad quarterback Kurt Benkert. Love had been taking the first-team reps with Rodgers out, with Benkert running the scout team. It’s uncertain whether the Packers will elevate Benkert to first-team reps in practice or bring in another quarterback.
De'Vondre Campbell likely, Josh Myers unlikely this week
The Packers could be getting inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell off COVID-19/reserve before they play the Bears. Campbell is eligible to return Friday if he is asymptomatic.
“I believe he is (asymptomatic),” LaFleur said. “He’s doing everything he can at home to be at his best, and we’ll make sure we incorporate him throughout our game plan meetings through Zoom, and he’ll be a big part of it.”
Whenever Bakhtiari returns, his presence will help stabilize a Packers offensive line that has been makeshift all season. Another piece to stabilizing the offensive line does not appear close to making a return.
LaFleur said he does not expect rookie center Josh Myers to return this week. Myers has missed the past six games with a knee injury.
“I would think Josh needs a little bit more time,” LaFleur said.
This article originally appeared on Packers News: Packers' David Bakhtiari, Za'Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander may return