GREEN BAY, Wis. – It’s a good thing for Eric and Andrew Bakhtiari that they were born first.
“My mom makes a joke, ‘If David was my first, he would have been my last,’” Eric said.
And this was well before Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari started chugging beer at Milwaukee Bucks games. Well before the flashy suits at Kentucky Derby parties. Even before the long hair.
“David was, I guess you’d say, the troublemaker,” said Eric, the oldest of the three Bakhtiari brothers. “But the troublemaker in the Bakhtiari household is a kid that you would actually want. He would just get in trouble with the principal’s office, but nothing malicious.”
In other words, David is nothing like the standoffish rookie who came into the NFL in 2013. To be sure, he had no idea he was walking into an offensive line room that featured strong personalities such as Bryan Bulaga, T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton and a fan base and media corps that craved information from the players.
• 32 bold predictions for the NFL season
• Why Brady-Brees matchup is unprecedented
• Cowboys’ McCarthy ready for fresh start
• Burrow to begin pivotal rookie season
• Bills aim to dethrone Patriots, win SB
Lang recalled one of the first offseason practices after Bakhtiari was drafted. Some of the linemen piled into one vehicle to drive across the street from Lambeau to the practice field.
“One of us asked him how old he was,” Lang said.
Bakhtiari, according to Lang, replied: “I’m 21, but I’m a very mature 21.”
“We’re like ‘OK, loser,’” Lang said. “We were all 26, 27 and a bunch of class clowns, and this dude’s trying to act all serious and mature.”
‘Dude, you’re fine. Just get out there and play’
A few months later, Bulaga — who had transitioned that spring from right tackle to the left side — blew out his knee during a training camp practice, and the Packers threw Bakhtiari into the most important job on the offensive line.
“I don’t know if he was nervous, but everything got thrown at him really fast,” Lang said. “Like, you’re a fourth-round pick and now you’re starting. Honestly, I think having such a light group –- we weren’t a bunch of jerk veterans who were super serious. It was more of a fun-loving, lighthearted group. We were like, ‘Dude you’re fine. Just get out there and play.’
“It was kind of funny … you could tell in his mind that he wanted to come off mature but then he realized these guys aren’t very mature, and I’m more comfortable doing that than trying to act like something I’m not.”
Or as Bakhtiari puts it now, trying to explain why some perceived him as — to keep it family friendly – kind of aloof: “I think you’re mistaking me being quiet for me being ‘kind of a [d—].’”
“When I came in here I was a fourth-rounder and I knew my place: Speak when spoken to and talk with my actions not with my words,” he added. “That was what I wanted to prove to my teammates. I never wanted to lead from the back end with my mouth, I wanted to lead with my actions in the front.”
“You know the type of characters that I walked into in the room with in 2013,” he added. “There was no chance that I would ever out-character them.”
His plan was to fall in line and not overstep his bounds.
‘The better you play, the more you can talk’
There’s also more to Bakhtiari.
“He actually has learning disabilities that a lot of people don’t know about,” Eric said. “He has really bad ADHD and dyslexia, so he was in a resource program in school. But that personality you see now, he’s always had that.”
It just took a while to come out in the NFL.
In college, he’d hang around his brother, Eric, seven years his senior, whenever possible. Eric spent time with seven different NFL teams from 2008 to ’12, although he appeared in eight games (three with the Titans in 2009 and five with the 49ers in 2012). Middle brother Andrew also played at the University of San Diego.
“On his spring breaks, where most people are going to Mexico and Florida and get into a wreck for a week, he would come to L.A. with some of his teammates and train with us,” said Eric, who counted Clay Matthews and Aaron Rodgers among his offseason workout partners.
“So then he comes in as a rookie, he was a 21-year-old kid, and now he’s in the left tackle position, he wants to be seen not heard. So I think it was kind of the nerves of ‘I don’t want to say anything dumb or say anything to get me in trouble with the older guys’ and maybe that came off as arrogance.”
Bakhtiari also remembered something Matthews said early on: “The better you play, the more you can talk.”
“I took that literal, and I took it to heart,” Bakhtiari said.
His young teammates now reap the benefits.
“If you spent time and really watched practice you’d see Dave probably talk to the younger tackles more than he’ll talk to the veterans,” backup lineman Lucas Patrick said.
From ‘loser’ to lovable
So here is Bakhtiari now.
He’s one of the NFL’s premier left tackles who might soon reset the pay scale for his position and serves as a mentor to the Packers’ young linemen.
And Bakhtiari’s arguably one of the most fun-loving, charismatic athletes in all of Wisconsin — the one who gets into beer-chugging contests at Bucks games, is a must-follow on Instagram, for everything from his Derby pictures to his marriage proposal and a go-to quote after games, win or lose.
Which was probably why Packers linebacker Za’Darius Smith, who came to Green Bay as a free agent in 2019, sounded so surprised when told Bakhtiari could be kind of a pain in his early days.
“Man, he brings that leadership, and he brings that energy,” Smith said. “To tell you the truth, it all starts up front. And when I say it all starts up front, man, it’s coming from that O-line. So [David’s] bringing that energy, man, and for me to go up against him every day, man, it’s only making me better as a player, too. So I think that’s why I’m becoming so great at what I do, because I’m going up against the best each and every day.”
According to Eric, that’s who David has always been.
“He’s always been the life of the party,” Eric said. “I can’t get to his level with energy and charisma, and that’s also indicative of our NFL careers. Like he has that gear that I wasn’t blessed with. We both had the work ethic and the maniacal drive to be great. But his drive to be great, I wouldn’t challenge anyone on the Packers if they love football as much as David. He cares so much, and that’s the thing that helped him ascend to his greatness.”
Last season marked Bakhtiari’s fourth straight on one of the AP’s All-Pro teams (first team in 2018, second team in 2016, 2017 and 2019). Only one other tackle, Kansas City’s Mitchell Schwartz, has earned either first- or second-team honors each of the past four years.
Tackle play is often judged more anecdotally than statistically, but according to ESPN’s pass block win rate statistic, Bakhtiari had the highest percentage (95.7) of any tackle in the NFL last season. He also owns the highest percentage in that measure among all tackles dating to the start of the 2014 season, at 94.9%.
The next move for Bakhtiari and the Packers is to come to terms on a new contract.
After the Packers signed defensive tackle Kenny Clark to a four-year, $70 million deal last month, Bakhtiari became the priority. According to a source, the sides were still nearly $4 million per year apart. Bakhtiari almost certainly is seeking to exceed the $22 million per year that Houston’s Laremy Tunsil makes as the NFL’s highest-paid tackle. He also has said he wants to finish his career where it started. Bakhtiari isn’t the Packers’ only starting offensive lineman entering the final year of his contract. Center Corey Linsley, who like Bakhtiari started immediately as a rookie, also has an expiring deal.
“I came in when I was 21 years old,” said Bakhtiari, who turns 29 on Sept. 30. “It’s something that I cherish and appreciate so when I’m done playing I can truly say I gave everything –- even my jokes, even my effort. When I do hang it up, when I do eventually leave this place, leave the game, whenever that may be, the No. 1 thing I don’t want to do is I don’t want to look back with any regret. Regret on how my attitude was on a certain day, on how I played a certain game and how I presented myself in a daily capacity. I definitely want to, when I do look back, just smile and be like, ‘Yeah, I had a great time.’”
And that’s the part of Bakhtiari that Lang loves the most.
“It’s funny how the characteristics get passed down from generation [of Packers linemen] to generation,” Lang said. “Guys like Dave and Corey, they’re like Josh and I were. I remember calling Corey the night he got drafted. I said, ‘Dude, so pumped for you, can’t wait for you to get in the building, hopefully you get [drunk] tonight.’
‘He was like, ‘No, I’m just really excited to get to work,’” Lang said mocking a serious voice. “I’m like, ‘OK, you [expletive] nerd. Don’t come here acting like that, you’re not going to fit in. And he didn’t. And neither did Dave, and look at him now.”