GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was widely regarded as the best offensive line that the Green Bay Packers have had in Aaron Rodgers’ time as starting quarterback. But one of the key pieces of this season’s offensive line, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, is six weeks away from unrestricted free agency.
Bulaga, the Packers’ 2010 first-round pick, is coming off a productive season in which he was rated by ProFootballFocus as the NFL’s second-best pass-blocking right tackle. Overall, Bulaga was rated fourth among right tackles.
Bulaga was also healthy for almost the entire 2014 season, missing only the Week 2 game with a knee injury. Ending a season with a clean bill of health has been a rarity for Bulaga, who was out all of 2013 with a torn ACL and had to sit out the final seven games of 2012 with a hip injury.
With the combination of his recent health and positive production, Bulaga could be in demand if he reaches the open market in free agency.
"If it was up to me, everyone would love to stay where they were drafted," Bulaga said. "Everyone wants to be where they first came in and started to contribute. But we just have to see what happens."
After starting 33 regular-season games in his first three years at right tackle, Bulaga switched to left tackle entering training camp in 2013. But the knee injury he suffered during the Family Night scrimmage brought then-rookie David Bakhtiari into that job, a spot where Bakhtiari has since done very well. That sent Bulaga back to right tackle this past season, and he thrived there.
"It’s been a hell of a ride, man," Bulaga said of his first five NFL seasons. "It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed it. The guys that I’ve been with, my teammates, I love these guys. It’s been fun. It’s a top class organization. The fans are fantastic. But it’s the relationships you build in this locker room that’s special."
One factor working in the Packers’ favor of retaining Bulaga at an affordable salary is that his career has really settled in at right tackle. The difference in earning power between a left and right tackle is significant.
If Green Bay makes Bulaga the league’s highest-paid right tackle this offseason, it would mean giving him more than what the Indianapolis Colts gave right tackle Gosder Cherilus (five years, $35 million, $15.5 million guaranteed). That deal was signed before the 2013 season. That same offseason, the San Francisco 49ers re-signed their right tackle, Anthony Davis, to a five-year, $33 million extension ($8.38 million guaranteed). Davis is currently the NFL’s second-highest paid right tackle.
By comparison, the guaranteed portion of Cherilus’ contract would have him as the 14th-highest paid left tackle in the league. That’s how much more money left tackles are worth than right tackles, and that should make the Packers’ possible efforts to re-sign Bulaga more cap-friendly for the team.
"I love playing next to T.J. (Lang) and all these guys," Bulaga said. "All these guys are really close friends, our families are really close. You’d love to keep a good thing together. That’s just the way it is.
"But this is a business and we just have to see what happens."
Bulaga added, "That’s not really my decision . . . at this point, it’s out of my hands."
Breaking up an offensive line that Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy think so highly of doesn’t seem like a good idea. Bulaga obviously only represents one-fifth of that offensive line, but it’s not always as easy as just plugging in someone new and getting similar results.
Without Bulaga, Green Bay could use JC Tretter as its new right tackle. Or, the Packers could retain restricted free agent Don Barclay and make him the starter again like he was in 2013. Green Bay could also look to the draft and spend one of its earlier picks on an offensive tackle. Aside from Bulaga, Green Bay’s starting offensive line is made up of three fourth-round picks (Lang, Bakhtiari and Josh Sitton) and one fifth-round pick (Corey Linsley). So, history shows that even a mid-round pick in the 2015 draft could become the fifth starter and eventually find success with this group of linemen.
Sitton wasn’t directly referring to Bulaga, but he was pessimistic at the end of the season that the Packers could retain their key free agents (of which Bulaga and Randall Cobb lead the list) and get back to being as good of an overall team as Green Bay was in 2014.
"There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to be on the team — a lot of people we can’t pay," Sitton said. "This team, I don’t think we can be this good for a while. It’s going to be tough, anyway."
But if general manager Ted Thompson views Bulaga as one of the NFL’s five-best right tackles and is willing and able to pay him as such, it will likely take somewhere in the range of four-to-five years at an average of $6.5 million per season with about $9 million guaranteed.
"I can’t predict the future," Bulaga said. "We’ll just have to wait and see what happens."