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Why franchise tagging Bryan Bulaga does not make sense for the Packers

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The Packers should try to bring Bulaga back, to be sure, but the tag should be off the table for a simple reason: it’s just too much money.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, morning, NFL.com published a piece by Gregg Rosenthal discussing each NFL team’s key Franchise Tag questions. The Green Bay Packers have a handful of notable players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March, but one stands out above the rest — at least to Rosenthal — as being worthy of consideration for the tag.

He points to right tackle Bryan Bulaga as that player, and he feels that the Packers should indeed use the tag on the veteran from Iowa:

Bulaga enjoyed a strong bounce-back season in 2019. I’ve gone back and forth on this one, but it just doesn’t make sense to allow a quality right tackle to leave when the team has the cap space to afford him.

This got us at Acme Packing Company thinking about the ramifications of placing a tag on Bulaga. Of course, the Packers have some salary cap space right now — about $23 million projected, with another $12.5 million or so available through a pair of expected releases — but would a tagged Bulaga still fit in for a team with about $35 million to spend? The first question is how much a tag would cost, and that should be enough to stop the analysis dead in its tracks.

Based on a projected salary cap of $200 million, here are the tag amounts for offensive linemen, according to Over the Cap:

  • Franchise tag: $16.102 million
  • Transition tag: $14.666 million

For as good as Bulaga is and has been in the last few years, those numbers are simply too steep for a player of his age, with his injury history, and at his position.

Bulaga is coming off a contract that paid him $33.75 million over five years, an average of $6.75 million. The 2017 season saw him take up the largest portion of the Packers’ salary cap at 4.7%; but even giving him the transition tag would account for 7.3% of the cap in 2020. That’s a massive number, one that only two right tackles would match next season: the RaidersTrent Brown ($21.25 million) and the EaglesLane Johnson ($15.686 million).

Fundamentally, franchise-tagging an offensive lineman only makes sense if he is a left tackle. Of the 25 contracts that make up the calculation for the franchise tag — the five highest cap hits among all offensive linemen in each of the past five years — just eight played any position other than left tackle. Four of those were guards (Kelechi Osemele accounting for two of these) and four were centers (Ryan Kalil twice as well), and not a single right tackle has been among the top five OL in cap hit in the past five years.

(The Raiders seem primed to put Brown in that category in 2020, if they play him on the right side instead of the left. Brown is currently scheduled to have the highest cap hit of any offensive lineman next year at $21.25 million, all of which is guaranteed.)

All told, the Packers would be wise to make overtures to Bulaga to bring him back in 2020. He remains one of the team’s best pass-blockers, and he was relatively healthy last season, starting 16 of 17 games (with his only absence being because of illness) and playing over 83 percent of the team’s offensive snaps.

However, the going rate for right tackles is simply nowhere near the amounts for either tag, as the position lags far behind left tackles and centers in compensation. At center, nine players are set to hold a cap hit above $10 million in 2020 (including the Packers’ Corey Linsley), with another four at $8M or more. At left tackle, those numbers are 17 over $10M and another two above $8M.

But for right tackles, just five have cap hits over $10M this year and just four more are over $8M for a total of nine. Giving Bulaga a deal with a cap hit around $10M would put him sixth among players at his position, a number that seems much more in line with his value in the marketplace than a deal that would put him second or third in line.