This is the third installment of my “Five Players That Have to be Good” for the Green Bay Packers. My third choice is left tackle Bryan Bulaga.
On May 3, 2013 the news made its way through Packers media outlets that Head Coach Mike McCarthy was going to make sweeping changes on the offensive line. The unit that allowed MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers to be sacked a league high 51 times is being flipped from left to right, or right to left, or whichever way you want to look at it. RT Bryan Bulaga, who was placed on injured reserve with a hip injury, is considered the Packers best tackle.
Even though he was considered one of the top up-and-coming right tackles in the league (regardless of what happened in Seattle), Coach McCarthy has decided to switch him to the left side. Not only that, but he’s bringing the Packers’ best OL, guard Josh Sitton over to the left to team with Bulaga again. Naturally this puts TJ Lang at Sitton’s old position of RG, creating an open competition at RT between former starters Marshall Newhouse and Don Barclay, as well as 2011 1st round pick Derek Sherrod.
Coach McCarthy’s logic certainly seems solid. He has decided that his best tackle is Bryan Bulaga, and that his best guard is Josh Sitton. Aaron Rodgers is right handed, and therefore when he drops back, his two best linemen will be protecting his blind side. This also allows the slightly bigger, nastier Lang to move to RG. Evan Dietrich-Smith is ready to step up at C and the competition at RT will elevate the level of play from all involved. Newhouse will have to perform or no longer be a starter, and Barclay will have to refine his craft to the point that he is more than just a mauler in the run game. Sherrod will have to prove that he is worthy of a roster spot and not a colossal bust.
There is clearly going to be a newfound emphasis on getting people blocked up front this season. Not only was the line switched but the Packers spent 4 picks in the 2013 NFL Draft on 2 RBs and 2 OL. Coach McCarthy told us to write it in BIG BOLD LETTERS that they were going to run the ball better this year. When you consider those personnel investments and add the fact that the only unrestricted free agent Ted Thompson signed was blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan, it’s clear that the Packers are focused on the trenches.
While this all sounds well and good, it really is dependent on the success of Bryan Bulaga. If Bulaga can become the blindside protector that Chad Clifton was, staring down pass rushers like Jared Allen and Julius Peppers and playing them to a standstill, this move will be genius. If Bulaga struggles, and offers nothing more or little more than Newhouse did, then McCarthy may have moved the strengths of the line (the guards and Bulaga at RT) out of their preferred positions without benefitting the team. It’s a dangerous gamble.
Bulaga, the Packers 1st round pick in 2010, was a pleasant surprise for Packers fans at the 23rd pick, having been projected as high as 5th to the Kansas City Chiefs by some draftniks. Bulaga was an All-Big Ten selection at Iowa, and the league’s Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2009. His biggest perceived limitation didn’t become apparent until the NFL Combine, where it was discovered that his arms measured only 33¼”. The thought was that with arms that length, Bulaga would be limited to playing right tackle. His length wouldn’t allow him to get his hands on the league’s elite pass rushers who often rush from the quarterback’s blind side.
Talking to Bulaga about his arm length became about as popular as talking to Aaron Rodgers about the Packers’ offseason workout program during the lockout year, or his height.
“I never really got myself in a position where I thought, ‘Gosh, I wish my arms were longer..’” Bulaga quipped to the Des Moines Register during his pre-draft process.
I understand that it will be important for Lang and Sitton to adjust to their new roles and thrive in them. I also understand that whoever wins the RT job needs to be able to hold up against the pass and provide a decent push in the running game. This complete switch of the offensive line is going to come down to whether or not Bryan Bulaga can acquit himself as an above average starter at left tackle. If that happens, everything else will fall into place. If it doesn’t happen there’s a chance that you could have a disastrous performance from a line, even when healthy, was giving up sacks “left and right”.
Bryan Bulaga has to be good.