In the case of last year's first-round pick, Bryan Bulaga, there was almost nowhere to go but up.
According to STATS, Bulaga allowed 11 sacks during the regular season — a frighteningly high figure for a player who didn't even break into the starting lineup until Week 5. According to Pro Football Focus, Bulaga allowed 12 sacks — a figure matched only by Chicago's Frank Omiyale, whose co-league-leading figure was accrued over the full 16 games. The 10 accepted penalties against Bulaga put him in a tie for seventh-most among all NFL offensive linemen.
However, with the first preseason game of Bulaga's second season coming on Saturday, it's quite possible that Bulaga is the team's most improved player, regardless of position.
"He's winning. He's winning a lot. That's a good thing," offensive line coach James Campen sad after Tuesday's practice. "When you take and carry over from the 16 games he had last year and put them into the training camp, he's really grown. Bryan's a guy who takes his offseason seriously and has worked very hard. He's doing a very good job right now."
That's apparent during the nightly one-on-one pass-blocking battles. Locked up with Pro Bowler Clay Matthews, Bulaga boasted a spotless record until losing in each of the last two nights. During 11-on-11 sessions, Bulaga mostly has kept Matthews at bay.
"It's a great thing," Bulaga said of dueling with Matthews. "It's the best thing for me, at this point. He's one of the top five pass rushers in the league, hands down. To go against him every day definitely helps me out and is only going to make me a better player.
For Bulaga, last season was a mental and physical challenge. He spent most of training camp at left tackle until being given a shot to unseat Daryn Colledge at left guard. Because he was thinking rather than playing, he lost that battle and opened the season as the primary backup at left tackle and left guard.
After replacing a struggling Chad Clifton at left tackle in Week 2, Bulaga's season — and career — took a sudden right turn when veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Bulaga, who had never played on the right side in his football career, had to learn the footwork and his new perspective on the game in a hurry.
Not surprisingly, there were growing pains. In his first start, at Washington, Bulaga was flagged twice for false starts. The second of which came in overtime, turning a third-and-7 into a third-and-12. On the next play, Brian Orakpo beat Bulaga for a sack. On the second possession of overtime, Bulaga missed a blitz that resulted in an interception that set up the Redskins' winning field goal.
However, during the final five games, Bulaga was blamed for just one sack, according to Pro Football Focus' game breakdowns. While Bulaga called it a steady progression, Campen said Bulaga truly looked comfortable during the playoff game at Atlanta.
"You could really see him saying, ‘OK, I get this,'" Campen said. "He gradually got better and better each week. He's not a guy who makes the same mistake twice; he's not going to get fooled twice. Just seeing everything and getting the reps has really helped him a lot."
He's definitely picked up where he left off with a superb training camp that has him looking like a worthy heir to the terrific Tauscher.
"I'm taking more repetitions at right tackle, getting settled in with footwork and seeing different looks," Bulaga said. "I feel more comfortable. I feel like I'm improving every day. If I make some mistakes one day, it's about coming back the next day and really focusing on that and correcting that."
While last training camp was nothing but a series of crash courses, this training camp has been about mastering his craft. Bulaga has found the one-a-day practice schedule to be a big benefit as he's been able to take the increased instruction during the day and put it to use at night.
"Because of the CBA (barring two-a-days), you're kind of put in that position," he said, "which is good, especially for younger guys, giving them more time to walk through things and show them different looks in the gym, so that when they get out on the field, they understand a little bit better. So, I think that's very beneficial. Even older guys — OK, I'm not really that much of an older guy — I find it beneficial to go over certain looks in the gym against certain looks against certain plays and seeing different blitzes and how they're set up."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.