GREEN BAY — While there might be plenty of folks outside of 1265 Lombardi Avenue more than a little surprised, there’s at least one person inside the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field headquarters who isn’t the least bit taken aback by the fact that the team is poised to enter the regular season with unproven Alex Light as the swing tackle.
That person? All-pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, who knows a thing or two about playing the position.
“I’ve liked him since he came in,” Bakhtiari said this week, as the Packers prepped for their preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs — a game Light figures to start at left tackle with Bakhtiari and virtually every other starter set to sit out in advance of the Sept. 5 season opener in Chicago.
“I think the biggest thing for him is he needs to believe in himself. I think he’s definitely grown a lot, and I think we should expect to see a second-year jump from a kid like that.”
The 6-foot-5, 309-pound Light was one of the feel-good stories of training camp last year, making the Packers’ 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie free agent from Richmond. But he saw action in only three games, playing 26 snaps on offense and nine on special teams. He was inactive for 12 other games as a healthy scratch and spent one game on the reserve/suspended list during a year that was essentially a redshirt season for him at the pro level.
The regime change from longtime coach Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur turned out to be a blessing for Light, whose athleticism for his size makes him a good fit for LaFleur’s outside-zone run-blocking scheme.
“He’s an athletic guy who is a smart football player,” LaFleur said. “We’ve seen some really good flashes. It’s going to come down to the consistency with how he plays, but I think there’s been some really good moments for him. He’s really progressed.”
The challenge for Light is to make sure those moments come more often, and that’s especially vital as the primary backup behind Bakhtiari and veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga. With Bulaga on a careful practice/maintenance schedule because of his injury history, Light got ample extra snaps throughout camp and got to work in 1-on-1 pass-rush/pass-blocking drills against high-priced free-agent pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith.
“I’ve been able to elevate my game going against Za’Darius and Preston every day,” Light said. “If I make the team and happen to be out there, then I’m going to have to go against those type of players every day. So just going against them and working my technique that I’ve learned from the coaches and older guys here … is really a blessing.”
Light started the Aug. 8 preseason opener against Houston at left tackle and played 29 snaps. With Bulaga and Bakhtiari starting the Aug. 15 game at Baltimore, Light came on in relief and played 30 total snaps at both tackle spots. Against the Oakland Raiders last week, he again started at left tackle and played 46 snaps.
“He’s definitely the most improved guy from OTAs. Every day, he keeps getting a little bit better and a little bit better,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said. “When I first got here, he flashed some things and you were like, ‘Whoa, this guy, he’s got a chance.’ He’s just become more consistent, and he’s putting really good stuff on tape in these preseason games. So, he’s been very good. He’s come along really well for us, and I’m excited about that.”
Stenavich said Light’s athleticism has helped him move against outside rushers when on an island but his most significant improvement has been in the run game, where “he’s coming off the ball with some confidence and really being physical. It’s cool to watch.”
That confidence has grown after Light lost 10 pounds during the offseason with an intense workout regimen back at Richmond and by significantly altering his diet.
“It’s night and day,” Light said. “Just being a pro and taking that experience from last year to this year and building upon that. My confidence is way higher. I’ve learned a lot more technique-wise. I feel like I’m smarter. Just a big difference.”
When 2016 second-round pick Jason Spriggs was waived/injured and landed on injured reserve earlier this month, Light’s importance to the Packers’ line depth increased significantly. Although starting right guard Billy Turner also has tackle experience and could fill in if necessary, moving Turner would mean making changes at two positions if Bakhtiari or Bulaga went down. At the same time, Light must show he can be trusted with the blind side of quarterback Aaron Rodgers — not an easy task, as Bakhtiari well knows.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in the NFL. But it’s also not changing my mindset,” Light said. “I’m definitely working my (expletive) off trying to get better. Nothing’s given. Everything is earned. Until that day comes, I’m going to keep on grinding.”
And, Bakhtiari predicted, keep growing.
“If you would have told me that for the last six years I’d have to block for as long as I have in pass protection, do it for this crazy guy (Rodgers) against great pass rushers, I’d have said, ‘Wait, have you seen these guys? Professional pass rushers? I can’t do that.’ But you learn and adapt and grow in confidence,” Bakhtiari said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing for Alex. We’ve always talked about a ‘second-year jump’ around here, and this is a player we should expect that from. He has what it takes.
“His game hasn’t changed that much. I’ve seen what I saw early on. It’s just a little more consistent. You just keep growing, and then everything else takes care of itself.”