What return of Jaire Alexander, Za'Darius Smith, others would mean for Packers' playoff chances

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The list of once injured but now healthy players who have returned to the Packers in the days before Saturday’s NFC divisional-round matchup with the San Francisco 49ers (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox) looks like one of the biggest strokes of luck this Green Bay team has experienced all season.

But that’s not how one prominent member of the Packers looks at it.

“Fortune would’ve been if we had them all year,” safety Adrian Amos said recently. “Like that would’ve been fortunate.”

Yet even without the gaggle of players who have come back to practice recently, the Packers did enough to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, and they did so with a week left in the regular season.

Coach Matt LaFleur remained "hopeful" that Za'Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander could play Saturday, and he said left tackle David Bakhtiari was held out of practice Tuesday because of load management.

The question now is: How much better can the Packers be?

There could be a two-fold impact: one on the X's and O's and another on the team’s mental state.

“It's a boost to people around just to see guys back, because when great players go down, it’s a bummer to everybody just on the level when you actually know those guys as your boys,” Amos said. “But just having them out there, it’s great to see, and hopefully, they can help us make a run here.”

Here's a look at how that could happen:

Offensive line

Returning players: Bakhtiari, C Josh Myers, RT Billy Turner

Bakhtiari played 27 snaps -- his first 27 since his Dec. 31, 2020, torn ACL -- in the regular-season finale at Detroit. He performed like an All-Pro should, but that was in less than a half of action. Myers went a little longer, going 32 snaps in his return from a Week 6 knee injury. Turner has not played since a Dec. 12 knee injury, but he returned to practice last week; he also was on the COVID-19 list during his time off.

If all three can play -- and make it through an entire game -- it gives the Packers all but one of their preferred starting offensive linemen. Only Elgton Jenkins, who tore his ACL on Nov. 21 against the Minnesota Vikings, would not be available. The Packers haven’t had that many preferred starters at their natural positions the entire season. It means Yosh Nijman, who began the season as the No. 3 left tackle, returns to a backup role. So would veteran right tackle Dennis Kelly if Turner is able to play. And then Lucas Patrick likely would go to right guard after filling in for Myers at center; Patrick is likely an upgrade over rookie right guard Royce Newman.

Rodgers joked that after getting the ball out of his hands quickly all season, he purposely held it longer against the Lions after Bakhtiari returned to test the lineman. Don’t expect a philosophical change, but at least Rodgers knows he has his security blanket.

“Leading up to it, he said, ‘Man, you’ve been doing so good, you’re getting the ball out quick, you’re not holding onto the ball. Then I come back and you’re running around and extending plays,’” Rodgers said. “I’m like, ‘I’m not trying to do that, Dave.’ I like the way this has gone. I enjoy getting the ball out. This is a different system. So, no, I’m not going to flip a switch and start hanging onto the football more. That’s not how I want to play. That’s not how we’ve played all year.”

No matter how long Bakhtiari has to block, he has typically excelled. He led all tackles from 2017 to 2020 with a 94.5% pass block win rate, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Myers had a 95.5% pass block win rate this season. His replacement, Patrick, had a 91% rate while playing center. Turner had a 92.1% win rate in his 13 games this season, which was fifth best among right tackles.

Wide receiver

Returning player: Randall Cobb

Cobb hasn’t played since he underwent core muscle surgery in late November, but his return means two things: The Packers have a natural slot receiver again, and Rodgers has one of his favorite third-down targets. Twelve of Cobb’s 28 catches during the regular season came on third down, and 10 of them went for first downs. Without tight end Robert Tonyan, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL on Oct. 28, Cobb’s presence in the middle of the field became even more important. Cobb has caught 71% of his targets from Rodgers in his career, the highest rate of any receiver Rodgers has played with (with at least 60 targets).

What’s more, Cobb could factor in the Packers’ struggling kick return game, as well.

“Randall, if he’s up and he’s available to the game-day roster, he is definitely an option,” Packers special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton said.

Outside linebacker

Returning players: Smith, Whitney Mercilus

Smith, a second-team All-Pro in 2020, played 18 snaps in Week 1, but he hasn’t competed since undergoing back surgery shortly thereafter. He returned to practice last week, but given his injury, the lengthy absence and the lack of reps in first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s system, it might be a stretch for him to play a major role. However, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t play spot duty as a pass-rusher on third downs and in obvious passing situations. In his first two seasons with the Packers, he was third in the NFL in sacks (26) and third in pressures (103).

Don’t be surprised to see him rush from the inside, given the success that Rashan Gary (9.5 sacks) and Preston Smith (9.0) had on the outside in his absence.

Mercilus, a midseason pickup, was thought to be lost for the season to a torn biceps in his fourth game with the Packers, but he made a surprising return to practice last week. If he is in the rotation, the Packers have effectively replaced former undrafted free agents Jonathan Garvin and Tipa Galeai with a pair of proven veterans in Za'Darius Smith and Mercilus.

“Not having a Za'Darius all year, that put a lot of pressure on Rashan and Preston,” Barry said. “We had guys that filled in and did a great job. When we got Whitney, not only were we getting a guy to roll in there, we were getting a guy that’s played at a Pro Bowl level before in his career. Now, moving into the playoffs, having the ability to not only have Rashan and Preston but to have a Z in the rotation, to have potentially Whitney in the rotation, it just gives you fresh rushers, fresh, violent guys on the edge. You can’t have enough of those guys.”

Cornerback

Returning player: Alexander

The second-team All-Pro in 2020 hasn’t played since a shoulder injury in Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. A week earlier, he had his first interception of the season against Jimmy Garoppolo, whom the Packers will be facing Saturday. Rasul Douglas wasn’t even on the Packers’ roster at the time of Alexander’s injury. The question now is how to use Alexander? Douglas and rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes seem entrenched on the outside and not particularly adept at playing in the slot. There was talk of moving Alexander into the slot early in the season, but it rarely happened. He played just 20 of his more than 200 snaps from an inside position, but the Packers still believe that’s a spot where Alexander could thrive. It also could be more conducive for a player who hasn’t played in months and therefore wouldn’t have to play the entire game like a perimeter corner would, although the pounding he might take inside could be a problem for his shoulder.

Last season, Alexander allowed the third-lowest completion rate (49.3%) and third-lowest passer rating (60.9) among players targeted at least 50 times, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

“I don’t think when you’re a player like Z or a player like Ja, you don’t ever lose that awareness or instinct or feel,” Barry said. “But you definitely have to get into the proper playing shape and the proper playing feel for your body. And again, I think that’s where we have to come into play, and we have to decide, ‘OK, where is this guy at?’ And we’re still in that process of figuring that out, where that magic number is on how many plays that they can go. And like I said, we’re going to; that is our job to figure out what that number is. And when you’ve got two great players, we’re going to get them on the field as much as they can handle.”