Russ Ball has negotiated several difficult contracts since joining the Green Bay Packers back in 2008.
Aaron Rodgers has had a few doozies. The same goes for extensions with David Bakhtairi, Jaire Alexander and Aaron Jones.
But Ball — Green Bay’s Executive Vice President — will have his work cut out for him trying to reach a deal with fourth-year offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins.
The remarkably versatile Jenkins spent the majority of his first two years excelling at left guard. Then in 2021, Jenkins moved to left tackle and shined in the eight starts he made there before tearing an ACL.
Now, as Jenkins enters the final year of his rookie contract, two things could make this one of the trickier negotiations in some time.
First, Jenkins must prove he’s healthy and deserving of a second contract with the Packers. To date, Jenkins has done exactly that.
Second, Jenkins and the Packers must determine what position they view him playing in the near future. Jenkins has shown he can play every spot on the line, including left tackle. And as everyone knows, left tackles get the money — something Jenkins is well aware of.
“Yeah, they do get the big money,” Jenkins said.
During his first three seasons, Jenkins has 30 starts at left guard, eight at left tackle, three at center and one at right tackle. Jenkins hadn’t play left tackle since he was a sophomore at Mississippi State in 2016, when he stepped in for an injured David Bakhtiari (ACL) last year.
Jenkins played just less than half the season before suffering his ACL injury and was dominant in the run game. He wasn’t quite as good in the pass game, yielding 13 pressures in eight games.
Still, Jenkins proved he could be a top-10 left tackle moving forward.
The 6-foot-5, 311-pound Jenkins has prototypical left tackle size, 34 inch arms and terrific feet. So, if he and his people wanted to argue he’s a left tackle, they certainly have a case.
And that negotiating strategy makes perfect sense.
The NFL’s five-highest paid left tackles this season will make an average of $21.3 million. The five-highest paid left guards have an average salary of $13.4 million, while the five highest-paid right tackles average $18.0 million.
“I know I can play left tackle in this league,” Jenkins said. “But I try not to label myself at any position because I can play each position. I can play each position on the O-line. When the time comes, we’ll just have to figure out what’s the best move for me going forward and what’s the best move for the team going forward, as well.”
The other piece of the puzzle is how Jenkins plays after suffering his knee injury in Week 11 a year ago.
In 2019, Jenkins graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rookie guard and a top-10 left guard overall. In 571 pass blocking snaps that season, Jenkins didn’t allow a sack.
In 2020, Jenkins played 828 snaps at left guard, 97 at center, 32 at right tackle and 27 at left tackle. He handled every assignment with aplomb and was selected to his first Pro Bowl.
Jenkins became the first Green Bay offensive lineman to start a game at guard, center and tackle in the same season since the 1970 merger. And in 733 pass blocking snaps, Jenkins allowed just one sack.
Last year, Jenkins allowed just two sacks in 496 passing snaps at the far more demanding left tackle position.
This summer, Jenkins was taken off the Physically Unable to Perform list midway through training camp. And it’s possible he’ll start in Week 1 when Green Bay travels to Minnesota Sunday
“Certainly when you have a player of Elgton’s caliber that frees you up and gives you a lot of flexibility to truly put the best five out there,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “But we’ll see where it kind of goes as the week progresses.”
Jenkins is just 26 years old and could be a staple of the Packers’ line for years to come. But if Green Bay lets him get to free agency, the demand will be high.
NFL.com recently ranked Jenkins as the No. 9 free agent in the Class of 2023. With the salary cap expected to rise from $208.2 million this season to $225 million next year, several teams will have the ability to write big checks.
The Packers seem to be in a wait and see mode with Jenkins. The Pro Bowl offensive lineman is fine with that — for now — but knows some tricky negotiations could await both parties.
“Yeah, it could be tough,” said Jenkins, a soft spoken, mild-mannered player from Clarksdale, Miss. “I feel like I’ve shown I can play all the positions, even left tackle. So, we’ll try and stay as flexible as possible and see what happens.”