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Packers outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith has not played since the season opener due to a back injury.

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GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur knows full well what a lift his Green Bay Packers would get from getting left tackle David Bakhtiari, cornerback Jaire Alexander or outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith back for the stretch run of the regular season and the NFC playoffs — let alone getting all three All-Pros back.

But the Green Bay Packers coach toed a line between hopeful and evasive about the likelihood of those star players being back in action as LaFleur’s team returned from its bye week Monday.

Asked if Bakhtiari, Alexander or Smith could be back on the practice field this week, LaFleur’s initial one-word answer was encouraging: “Potentially.”

Then, after a brief pause, LaFleur added: “You know, certainly we hope so. Those guys again are doing everything in their power, but we’ll see where we’re at on Wednesday and obviously you guys will get updated then.”

Later in his Q&A session with reporters at Lambeau Field, LaFleur tamped down expectations slightly: “I know that they’re itching to get back as soon as possible. We just want to make sure that there’s no extra risk for a setback or whatnot because obviously they’re an important part of this team.

“If we can get these guys back — there’s certainly no guarantees with that — but we’re hopeful that we can get each one of those guys back.”

Bakhtiari, a five-time All-Pro who tore the ACL in his left knee during a Dec. 31 practice near the end of the 2020 season, hasn’t played all year. He started the season on the physically unable to perform list, began practicing on Oct. 21 as part of the three-week window for players coming off the PUP list, was activated to the roster on Nov. 10 but then underwent a “clean-up” arthroscopic surgery on the knee late last month that derailed his comeback.

Alexander, a second-team All-Pro last season, injured his shoulder during an Oct. 3 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and has not played since, has been seen rehabbing inside the Don Hutson Center during practices and avoided having what would have been season-ending surgery, but the Packers have been reluctant to put any sort of timeline on his return.

And Smith, a second-team All-Pro last year and the Packers’ sack leader over the past two seasons (26 combined in 2019 and 2020), started training camp on the non-football injury list with the back injury, the genesis of which has not been explained publicly. He took part in just one practice during camp, scarcely practiced the week of the regular-season opener and then played just 18 snaps in that Sept. 12 loss to the New Orleans Saints before landing on injured reserve and undergoing back surgery. How extensive that surgery was is also unclear, but Smith did post a cryptic message on social media suggesting he’s nearing a return to action.

None of the three seem likely to play in Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field, and LaFleur emphasized because all three have different injuries, their comebacks, which are being overseen by head athletic trainer Bryan “Flea” Engel and the medical staff, are on different timelines.

“It’s hard to put ‘em all in the same box. They’re all recovering from different things,” LaFleur said. “I trust that ‘Flea’ and our medical staff have a great plan for these guys in terms of trying to incorporate them back into practice and then just the whole ready-to-play process for each individual. But I wouldn’t say we’d lump them all into the same kind of category.”

The Packers have managed to survive without all three, going 9-3 to put themselves in position to earn the NFC’s No. 1 seed and the lone conference playoff bye that comes with it.

But the Packers have also lost left guard-turned-left tackle Elgton Jenkins to a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee, leaving third-stringer Yosh Nijman to man the left tackle spot, so Bakhtiari’s return would deliver a huge boost. The same goes for the edge-rushing position, where Rashan Gary played through an elbow injury last week and the depth has thinned behind him and Preston Smith due to injuries.

At cornerback, while Rasul Douglas and rookie first-round pick Eric Stokes have held up well, the Packers would love to have Alexander and Kevin King, who has missed half of the games this season with myriad injuries, back in the mix.

“You can never have enough great players, but our corners have done an outstanding job, I think,” LaFleur said, crediting defensive backs coach Jerry Gray and assistants Ryan Downard and Justin Hood for getting the fill-ins ready to play. “(We) definitely have been really excited about guys like Rasul Douglas. I think Stokes continues to get better each and every week. And Kevin King, when he’s healthy and he’s been in there, I think he’s done a really nice job. He’s another guy that we’ve got to get back into the fold.”

Photos: Packers' 2021 season in pictures

Check out photo galleries from every game of 2021 from the preseason through the end of the regular season and the playoffs.

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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