Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers’ success in the 2013 season. Check back each day to see the latest player on the list.
Note: This is not a list of the team’s 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player’s position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
NO. 3 — BRYAN BULAGA, LEFT TACKLE
AGE / EXPERIENCE
24 / Fourth NFL season
WHY HE’S NO. 3
The outcome of Bryan Bulaga’s switch to left tackle could be the make-or-break single-player performance that determines how successful the Green Bay Packers’ season will be.
Left tackle is one of the most important positions in the NFL. It’s with good reason that three of the first four players selected in this year’s draft were offensive tackles. It’s been more than three years since the Packers drafted Bulaga No. 23 overall and, while he’s been productive in his 33 starts, he had settled into his spot at right tackle.
Coach Mike McCarthy explained this offseason that he wanted the team’s best offensive tackle on the left side of the line. Keep in mind that a year earlier McCarthy had no interest in moving Bulaga, believing that he was on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle.
Bulaga is No. 3 on this list because he’s not only changing positions, but he’s also now the most responsible for protecting Aaron Rodgers. At right tackle, if Bulaga got beat off the edge, the odds were that the right-handed Rodgers would see the pass-rusher coming. Now, Bulaga has to take care of Rodgers’ blind side.
EXPECTATIONS FOR 2013
The expectations for Bulaga this season are huge. That’s one of the main reasons for him being No. 3 in this series. If Bulaga struggles with his transition to left tackle, Green Bay will be forced to go to a Plan B that McCarthy clearly wants to avoid.
While Marshall Newhouse deserves credit for the way he performed — and steadily improved — the past two seasons when thrown into a very difficult spot at left tackle, the Packers need Bulaga to lock this position down for the next decade. That’s what general manager Ted Thompson drafted Bulaga in the first round in 2010 to do.
Bulaga is coming off a season-ending hip injury that he was fortunate wasn’t more serious. The good news for Green Bay is that Bulaga recovered quickly and shouldn’t be slowed by it at all this upcoming season.
The number that all of the Packers’ offensive linemen should not forget is 51. That’s the number of times that Rodgers was sacked last season. No other quarterback in the entire league was taken down that many times. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning only combined to be sacked 48 times. Though Rodgers deserves — and has accepted — some of the blame for that sack total, Bulaga will have the biggest responsibility out of everyone in keeping the franchise quarterback upright. It’s not as if protecting Rodgers wasn’t already paramount to Green Bay’s Super Bowl chances, but now that he signed the richest contract in NFL history, the Packers simply cannot afford to lose him.
WHAT WOULD THEY DO WITHOUT HIM?
One of the biggest question marks on the team is the health of offensive tackle Derek Sherrod. After a broken leg ended Sherrod’s 2011 season, he was unable to be cleared at all in 2012. Even as the Packers held minicamp practices recently, Sherrod was still only able to watch from the sideline. Like Bulaga, Sherrod was a first-round pick with expectations to — at the very least — become a starter on Green Bay’s offensive line. Sherrod had a disappointing training camp as a rookie and got injured later that year. Unless that injury has forever changed Sherrod’s ability to compete at an NFL level, the Packers are still hoping he returns to the field and can eventually win a starting job.
If the situation with Sherrod was more clear, Green Bay’s offensive line depth wouldn’t be so uncertain. It’s possible that Sherrod can practice during training camp and that he competes against Newhouse, Don Barclay and David Bakhtiari for the starting right tackle spot. However, that can’t be expected of Sherrod until more is known about how well he’s recovered physically from an injury that happened 19 months ago.
Given that, if Bulaga gets injured this upcoming season, the most likely scenario would be to have Newhouse — who started 29 games at left tackle over the past two years — take over. Barclay, who’s a much better run-blocker than pass-protector, is better suited for right tackle. The Packers have seen the mixed results of Newhouse at left tackle, and it’s part of why McCarthy made the change with Bulaga. But, if Bulaga is unavailable and Sherrod is still not cleared, Newhouse would be the most qualified to step in at left tackle.