Bruised and battered after the game against the Philadelphia Eagles a week ago, Aaron Rodgers needed to stay upright and healthy if the Green Bay Packers were going to pull off a road win over the Chicago Bears. With starting left tackle David Bakhtiari missing the game after a surprise appendectomy, rookie Zach Tom filled in admirably, keeping Rodgers clean all game and staking his claim as the left tackle of the future.
When general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted Tom in the fourth round with the 140th-overall pick, Green Bay knew it was getting an athletic freak with versatility. Still, it wasn’t certain where he’d slot in. Tom played considerable snaps at center and left tackle in college at Wake Forest. However, he saw the first real action of his NFL career when the Packers called upon him for a spot start in Week 7 against the Washington Commanders — Bakhtiari’s knee wasn’t ready to go. Different circumstances called for another spot start this past weekend. Again, the rookie rose to the challenge, allowing only one pressure on Rodgers.
As sentimentally satisfying as it’s been having Bakhtiari back in the fold after a tumultuous two seasons of rehab, it’s growing increasingly tougher to count him into Green Bay’s long-term plans. Now in his 10th season, Bakhtiari has had an admirable career featuring two First-Team All-Pro honors. He has exceeded any and all expectations of a fourth-round draft pick. Bakhtiari is only 31 years old, but given his injury and the potential salary cap relief that the team could find by moving on, it’s easy to see the scenarios in which Green Bay lets him go.
The in-game sample size for Tom is still relatively small, but he has impressed since Day 1. He became a standout in training camp and performed at a high level when given the opportunity to do so in the preseason. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed zero pressures through 75 pass-blocking snaps in the preseason and has looked the part throughout his three starts so far this season. This week, reporters asked Gutekunst about what to do with Bakhtiari, and he finished his answer by complimenting Zach Tom.
So much of what a general manager has to do is balance the ability to win now with preparing for the future. The pressure on Gutekunst has shifted so much towards the now, with the recent painful playoff eliminations and Aaron Rodgers’ career winding down, that it has caused the team to sacrifice future versatility for more immediate resources. With things not exactly going according to plan this season, players like Tom will be essential to whatever the Packers look like coming out of this current era.
If Tom can continue his solid play, he will quickly ascend the ranks of the most valuable assets on Green Bay’s roster. He would produce at a high level at one of the most critical positions on the field. Tom also has the versatility to play elsewhere if the Packers call upon him. Perhaps equally as important, he’s young and cheap, neither of which Bakhtiari is right now.
It’s too early to permanently entrench Zach Tom as the Packers’ starting left tackle for the next decade, mostly due to his limited resumé in the NFL — especially when factoring in the loyalty that Green Bay often shows to its veterans. A multiple-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro player like Bakhtiari will be given the fullest benefit of the doubt. However, his ACL injury might be just too much to recover from.
It might be next week, it might be in the offseason, or it might be a year from now. Regardless, Tom appears to be an important feature in Green Bay’s offensive line. It’s not just quarterbacks that have had a succession of legends, but left tackles have also helped make Brett Favre and Rodgers into what they are. Chad Clifton gave the Packers 12 solid seasons, including a few Pro Bowls. His retirement helped prompt the need to draft Bakhtiari, who’s been firmly in the mix since his first year in 2013. A seamless transition from Bakhtiari to Tom for the next decade wasn’t the expectation coming out of April’s draft. However, that should be what Green Bay fans are realistically hoping for at left tackle moving forward.