Packers: It's all about Bryan Bulaga
July, 2, 2013
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesThe Packers are counting on Bryan Bulaga to successfully transition from right tackle to left tackle.Mike McCarthy sat recently in a leather chair at Lambeau Field, and for probably the 100th time he explained what prompted this spring's dramatic changes on the Green Bay Packers' offensive line. He noted the new competition it created at right tackle, insisted that "it's what's best for our offensive line and what's best for our team" and promised: "There's some scheme things in there that I think ultimately at the end of the year -- when it all shakes out -- you'll look back and say, 'Yeah, I see what they were doing.'"
As the Packers' head coach, McCarthy must view his team through wide lenses and the big picture. As a blogger, I have the luxury of zeroing in a bit more.
The Packers no doubt have moved the most unsettled component of their line to a less critical position, one where they have more credible options should presumptive right tackle Marshall Newhouse falter. And it certainly makes sense to preserve guard-tackle combinations rather than impose an additional transition. But for me, this entire exercise is about one position and one person and one very realistic determination.
The Packers are counting on Bryan Bulaga to rescue their three-year effort to replace now-retired left tackle Chad Clifton. A left tackle at Iowa before moving to the right side in the NFL, Bulaga was the Packers' only credible option at the position Newhouse failed to lock down in 2011 and 2012.
Of course, being the best option and being a good option is a gap that Bulaga has yet to bridge. He spent a portion of the offseason re-wiring his mentality to the left side, and watching him in non-contact practices during June minicamp revealed only that he is now comfortable lining up in a left-handed stance. NFL talent observers regarded him as a good pass-blocker for a right tackle, but how he will stand up against each opponent's top rusher remains in question.
(See the chart for a 2013 sampling of that group.)
"I certainly don't see him as a top-10 left tackle in the NFL," said Matt Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, "and he was a top-10 right tackle."
In some ways, however, the Packers' recent and presumed future success required McCarthy to devise a complex solution to a problem many teams never face.
When, for example, the Minnesota Vikings parted ways with longtime left tackle Bryant McKinnie in 2011, they simply made Matt Kalil the No. 4 overall pick of the 2012 draft. The Packers aren't likely to have a top-10 position for an upcoming draft, and more than ever, the talent drop-off at left tackle after that point is clear.
Did McCarthy sacrifice elite play at right tackle to get more competent on the left side? I don't think he would view it that way, and I'm not ready to, either. But as we discussed in May, if the Packers had always been convinced that Bulaga could be a top-end left tackle, they would have moved him there before his fourth season.
It's worth noting the lengths McCarthy was willing to go to put Bulaga in the best possible position. Josh Sitton was a Pro Bowler at right guard, but McCarthy deemed the left side more important than preserving Sitton's presence on the right side.
In the end, however, we know one thing: Bulaga's steady personality is a comforting crutch in the context of a dramatic move.
My limited dealings with Bulaga have revealed him to be a smart guy who works hard to keep things simple. When I asked him about the change last month, he shrugged his shoulders and said: "I don't look at it as a compliment or anything else. I've kind of looked at it like Coach McCarthy wanted to make a change. He's just flipping guys around. It's an opportunity for me, just like playing right tackle is an opportunity for me. I'm excited about it."
Bulaga said the totality of the move -- both tackles and both guards swapping spots -- is the most significant outcome of the decision. But again, for me, the overhaul was all in the name of establishing him at left tackle. Sitton described it as a "significant change," and while he said that offseason practices went "good," he made no attempt to downplay the movement.
"It's something that's going to take time," Sitton said. "I know for me it's going to take time."
I don't think there are any long-term concerns about Sitton moving to left guard, nor about having T.J. Lang replace Sitton at right guard. Last season's emergence of rookie Don Barclay demonstrated the relative ease of finding a serviceable right tackle. All of that should take care of itself.
For the Packers, it's all about Bulaga. He might not be a top-10 left tackle and probably doesn't have to be. But it's on him to make this work. If he can't, I'm not sure what would be the Packers' next option.