For Bryan Bulaga, lining up at offensive tackle the last three years has taken on a military order.
This year, as he makes his return during the OTA's from an ACL injury that ended his season a year ago, he is back to a more familiar spot.
Bulaga has been taking reps at right tackle an offseason after the Green Bay Packers decided to flip sides with their starting personnel along the offensive line. Before his ACL injury, Bulaga was slated to take over at left tackle for the first time in his NFL career.
Asked during these OTAs why Bulaga is back at right tackle this year, offensive line coach James Campen said, "I think that's an internal thing and I'll keep it that way. Certainly, Bryan has played a lot of football as a right tackle, and Dave (Bakhtiari) and Josh (Sitton) worked well together. So, that's the way we're going to go."
In Bulaga's season-long absence in 2013, David Bakhtiari stepped in as a rookie and started the entire season. His performance in part may have had something to do with Bulaga moving back to the right side before getting a shot again on the left side.
"Well, the move for Bryan to right tackle, obviously, that's where he has most of his experience. That's one factor," said head coach Mike McCarthy at the owners meetings this spring. "Two, we obviously spent the whole offseason (last year) training Bryan for the left side. But we got a full season with the combination of David and Josh. I like that relationship. I like the productivity that came out of those two guys. I think David being a rookie, he'll be a year better, he'll continue to grow as David's a very young man. … It's not more about the position because you want to play your best five guys on the offensive line. We're just putting a little more stock in the relationships between the guard and the tackle or the guards and the center and trying to keep that going. So, we're going to start out with David on the left side."
Bulaga tore the ACL in his left knee during the team's Family Night Scrimmage at Lambeau Field on Aug. 3, just more than a week into training camp. To make matters worse, he was coming off the injured reserve list from the season before, when a hip fracture sustained in a Nov. 4, 2012, game against the Arizona Cardinals sent him to the sideline. Before those two injuries, he had played in 42 of a possible 46 games for the Packers since becoming a first-round draft pick in 2010.
If all goes well and Bulaga takes the field for the preseason opener Aug. 9 at Tennessee, it will mark the first time in 643 days that he has played in an NFL game. But for now, during drill work, it looks like Bulaga had never left.
"It's good to have him back," said right guard T.J. Lang, a five-year veteran. "He's definitely important to us, especially along the offensive line. He's very talented. Obviously, he showed that his first couple years playing when he was healthy. It's the first time I've lined up next to him in my career. Really, it doesn't look like he's missed any time. He knows what he's doing out there, he knows the plays. It's a tribute to him. Even when he was missing time, he was focusing, learning, reading through the playbook, watching the film, so he's a guy that's definitely good to have back."
"Bryan Bulaga looks good," added McCarthy on Wednesday. "I mean, we're in the OTA practices and I think our pass under pressure drill has been good so we've been getting some work there with the sets. The individual work is what our line coaches do a great job of so he's getting exactly what he needs. He's stronger, weighs a little more than he has in the past, so he's having a heck of a spring."
Bulaga spent much of his workout time this winter in Bradenton, Fla., at the IMG Academy before returning to Green Bay in April. He is wearing a brace on his left knee, which he said actually helps him keep his knee flexed. He has worn a brace at times during his football career and is expected to wear it for the entire season without limitations.
"(He) looks pretty good. He's moving around and getting back into football ... other than just rehabbing type of work," said Campen. "He's had a lot of IPW's to get ready for this next step. With anyone coming off of not playing for a while, just getting their timing and punch down and hands coordinated and those types of things, those things will come. It's great to have him out there."
Bulaga is entering the final year of a five-year, $13.25 million rookie contract. His cap number this season is just over $3.8 million (base salary of nearly $2.6 million), which will be a relative bargain if he stays healthy and plays well.
What the shift back to right tackle could mean for contract negotiations may make a difference. Left tackles are generally more coveted and in most cases make more on the open market. The top five left tackles in free agency this year all signed five-year contracts totaling anywhere from $30 million to $47 million. Branden Albert, who signed with the Miami Dolphins for $9.4 million per season, graded out as the 17th best left tackle in the league by Pro Football Focus measures (among those tackles playing at least 50 percent of their team's snaps). Eugene Monroe, who re-signed with the Baltimore Ravens for $7.5 million per season, graded out at the 10th best left tackle. Jared Veldheer, who played in just five games in 2013 (but 43 starts the three previous seasons), signed with the Cardinals for $7 million per season. And Rodger Saffold, arguably the St. Louis Rams' third-best tackle a season ago, re-signed for an average of $6.34 million per year.
The right tackle market was considerably softer. The top five unrestricted free agents averaged just more than $4 million per season. Michael Oher led the way at $5 million per season going from the Ravens to the Tennessee Titans. Zach Strief, who graded out No. 1 at right tackle by Pro Football Focus, re-signed with the New Orleans Saints for $20 million over five years.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org