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Bryan Bulaga could force Packers to break tendency with aging offensive linemen

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Ted Thompson preferred to move on a year early rather than a year late with his offensive linemen contracts. Given how the Packers right tackle as performed this season, Bryan Bulaga may force Brian Gutekunst’s hand in breaking that tendency.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Khalil Mack was just the first of many premiere pass rushers Bryan Bulaga has stymied this season.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Ted Thompson cut Josh Sitton a few weeks before the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 season opened and then saw him perform well for the NFC North rival Bears, criticism of the move appeared fair. A year later, Chicago moved on from Sitton, who signed in Miami, got hurt, and never played football again. T.J. Lang’s career followed an overlapping trajectory: move on, play well briefly for a division rival, retire shortly thereafter.

Bryan Bulaga appeared to be headed down that path through the offseason. Billy Turner joined the team with a big-money free agent deal, ostensibly to play right guard, but potentially as a Bulaga replacement. The former Iowa standout entered the final season of a deal the Packers already tried once to renegotiate and Bulaga told the team to take a hike. He took the same tact with questions about positions changes.

The smart money was on Bulaga to play out his contract this season, miss his usual four to six games with injury, gut through four to six more, and walk in free agency only to retire a year or two down the road. Green Bay would either draft his replacement in 2020 or slide Turner out and seek a new right guard with Elgton Jenkins now entrenched as the long-term answer on the left side.

That plan looked good until Bulaga started playing like an All-Pro. He opened the season blanking the Bears’ destroyer of worlds, Khalil Mack. Then, Danielle Hunter got the stonewall treatment. Von Miller took his shot and failed. Brandon Graham likewise took the collar. Better luck next time to DeMarcus Lawrence. In 157 pass rush snaps Bulaga has taken this season, he’s yet to allow a quarterback hit, much less a sack. Mack and Graham each boast top-10 pass block win rates according to ESPN, yet couldn’t make any hay against the Packers right tackle.

He’s yet to even have a holding or false start penalty this season as his tandem tackle David Bakhtiari faces uncharacteristic struggles in that department. Bulaga’s pass block win rate falls short of Bakhtiari’s (as well as Corey Linsley and Elgton Jenkins’ who are each top-3 at their positions) but Bulaga’s consistency remains unrivaled on this line.

The eight-year vet turns 31 this offseason, not exactly a spring chicken, but hardly a burdensome age at this point. Injury red flags had fans ready to drive him to the airport this spring, but such concerns are overblown. After missing the entire 2013 season, Bulaga has played 15, 12, 16, 5 and 14 games. In other words, he’s only missed significant time once in the last five seasons. He left Thursday’s game with the Eagles with a mysterious shoulder injury, but was back out on the field in Dallas with his brick wall act.

Moving on from Bulaga would erect troubling obstacles for the Packers moving forward. Quality offensive linemen are harder than ever to draft and cultivate for myriad reasons including college schemes and a lack of practice time. Even a first-round pick hardly provides a reliable pathway to a quality lineman in 2020 or even 2021. We just witnesses the struggles of Jason Spriggs who couldn’t even finish out his rookie contract without the team willing to move on.

Green Bay could move Billy Turner, re-opening the hole at right guard. If the Packers think Turner can approximate Bulaga’s production while playing 16 games and someone like Cole Madison has a future as a quality starter in the league, this option shows some promise, but Turner’s slow start doesn’t inspire confidence he can slide out to tackle and be better.

And if they’re willing to spend money in free agency, why not just spend it on Bulaga? He’ll likely cost less than commensurate options on the open market, in part because they could extend him now before he hits that market, and offensive linemen prices skyrocket well beyond reasonable value once free agency starts. Not only does it make sense for the Packers to re-sign Bulaga, the best time to do it is right now.

If Brian Gutekunst wants an excuse to break from the Thompson/Russ Ball model of handling late-career offensive linemen, he has one: Chad Clifton. In 2010, Thompson signed a 33-year-old Clifton (playing his age 34 season) to a three-year deal worth almost $20 million. Clifton played just two seasons of that deal, but went to the Pro Bowl in 2010 while helping stabilize the Packers offensive line en route to a Super Bowl title. Keeping Bulaga would hardly assure a repeat performance, but Bulaga is younger than Clifton was then, not to mention playing at a higher level.

A three-year deal that is really a two-year deal with an out provides the perfect gateway to the future for the Packers. They can maximize Bulaga while he’s still in his playing window, even if it’s just 12 or 14 games a season. If this year has proven anything, it’s that 12 or 14 games of Bulaga is better than most right tackles in the league for 16 games. When the alternative is an unproven plan to protect the most important player on the roster, it hardly seems worthy of discussion. Green Bay needs Bulaga; he’s proven that this season. Alex Light ain’t it chief.

At this point, the question most worth asking isn’t “Should the Packers extend Bulaga?” but rather “Should they already have done it?” Waiting will cost Green Bay a few million and we already knew Bulaga was really good. I would defend Gutekunst and Ball, however. Bulaga came into 2019 on the last year of a very team-friendly deal. If he struggles to stay healthy or shows signs of slipping, the team simply moves on this offseason. If they wait, they retain the option of doing a deal in-season or before free agency hits. The certainty of seeing Bulaga prove it before handing him a new contract provides enough value to justify the lost savings of a contract last spring.

Extend Bulaga, use a high draft pick to find his eventual replacement, and let that young player get the time nearly every college offensive linemen needs to get ready for primetime. In the interim, the Packers get to compete for Super Bowl titles in the shrinking Aaron Rodgers window, maintain their continuity at a position group where it matters the most, and reward a player who has a Super Bowl title in Green Bay while protecting the signature player of this generation.