Packers reap return on investment in Yosh Nijman

GREEN BAY — For years in Green Bay, the opening replays of the one-on-one period between the offensive line and defensive front often set the tone for the drill.

This is where David Bakhtiari once fought Clay Matthews and Kenny Clark snapped a few snaps with Corey Linsley for the first time before giving way to other young linemen looking to hone their skills and potentially attract the attention of the coaching staff.

Yosh Nijman saw both sides. Once an undrafted free agent trying to make the 53, the 6-foot-7, 314-pound tackle has now moved up to the opening act responsible for the top-edge rushing tandem of Rashan Gary and Preston Smith in a one-on-one period.

And Nijman has not backed down.

In fact, the third-year veteran showed just how far he’s come on Monday with two competitive reps against Gary, the rising 23-year-old who was one of the top performers at camp.

“He’s getting better and better every year,” Gary said. “Getting stronger, understanding different levers, different looks I give him. I told him (Monday), ‘You’re getting a lot better with your hands.’”

Gary and Nijman, both NFL contestants in 2019, have seen each other in practice quite a bit over the years, despite arriving in Green Bay under vastly different circumstances.

Gary was the first of the Packers’ two first-round picks (12th overall) that year, while Nijman was one of 11 college free agents the Packers signed after completing the draft.

After a rookie season on the Green Bay practice team, Nijman made the 53-man Packers roster in 2020 but saw just 95 snaps (14 offense, 81 special teams) in 16 regular-season appearances.

It wasn’t until Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins went on hiatus last year that Nijman’s number was called in earnest. The 26-year-old proved a reliable left tackle force in eight starts during the regular season and was praised by quarterback Aaron Rodgers for his dedication, balance and skill.

“I was just waiting for an opportunity,” said Nijman. “Like everything in life, you work and wait for your opportunity. When you get your opportunity, you put all the work that you’ve put in — all the hard work — alongside the confidence in your work that you’ve put to the test.”

Nijman’s size aside, Packers HR saw plenty of natural ability and athleticism in the former Virigina tech-tackle when they signed him in 2019.

It was just a matter of offensive line coaches Adam Stenavich and Luke Butkus sharpening Nijman’s fundamentals and allowing the young man’s work ethic to carry on from there.

After being thrown into the fire by Stenavich last year, Nijman rose as a contingency option in the left tackle. Though a strained Green Bay defensive front has presented unique challenges to the offensive line this summer, Nijman has answered the bell.

“He has to be given a lot of credit because he broke his tail to get where he is,” said general manager Brian Gutekunst. “If you go out there, you can watch a guy that big moving like him and you’ll be mesmerized.

“I’m happy for him. He’s really developed into a man who will have a long career.”

It was Nijman’s most active training camp to date, with the Packers rotating between the two tackle positions with the No. 1 offense as the Packers seek to build their starting five for the 2022 season on the offensive line.

Coincidentally, with Bakhtiari and former Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins rehabilitating from serious knee injuries, Nijman was the most experienced offensive lineman on the practice field by both age (26) and games played (33).

“I feel like it slowed down the mental game for him,” said Jenkins, a second-round pick in 2019. “Now that I’ve been here (three) years, knowing the offense, knowing things like that, I feel Me like him only gets better than where he is right now.”

While the Packers hope to have Bakhtiari and Jenkins back in the not too distant future, Nijman is just focused on finding his groove and using the 800+ offensive snaps he’s played now to become a full-fledged starter somewhere will.

And wherever the Packers need him, Nijman will be ready.

“It becomes a little muscle memory in terms of games and what to do, how to prepare for them,” Nijman said. “It will definitely give me confidence going into this year.”

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