With the first-round selection of Iowa's Bryan Bulaga, the Green Bay Packers hope to have solved that problem for 2010, not to mention the next decade.
Every first-round pick, of course, is vitally important. But the selection of Bulaga looms especially large for the long-term future of the Packers. At best, Clifton only has a year or two left. With the franchise in the hands of star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it's imperative to have a lockdown left tackle protecting the blind side.
Enter Bulaga, the first true left tackle selected by general manager Ted Thompson in the first four rounds of any of his drafts in Green Bay.
"I want to be a successful starter, I want to be able to play good football for a very long time and (hopefully) they want me there for a long time," Bulaga said in a conference call with reporters about a half-hour after the selection. "That's the goal for me, to be successful in the NFL and play at a very high level."
The Packers need Bulaga to play at a high level -- from Day 1, not just in 2011 and beyond. Last season, Clifton started and finished just eight of a possible 17 games. From the infamous Warren Sapp cheap shot to a laundry list of injuries over the last two seasons, Clifton's body is feeling the wear and tear from 10 years in the NFL.
When Clifton was out of the lineup, the offense couldn't get out of its own way. Neither Daryn Colledge nor rookie T.J. Lang were up to the task when thrown into the fire. Plus, Clifton's on-and-off absences throughout the year meant Colledge couldn't focus on his main duties at left guard. Therefore, one injured player negatively impacted two positions.
Hopefully, the addition of Bulaga solves those problems.
"Potentially. Potentially. We've got to see how he plays, see where he's at," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "I'm very excited. He's got a lot of ability, he's got the mentality we're looking for, he's got the physical qualities we're looking for. To project, to sit here and say I'm going to sleep tonight 8 hours just because we have him, I don't know that."
Bulaga missed three games last season with a thyroid problem that both he and the Packers say is ancient history. After returning to play against Arkansas State, Bulaga allowed two sacks and three tackles for losses to Michigan's Brandon Graham and two tackles for losses against Wisconsin's O'Brien Schofield in his first two games back.
But from there, Bulaga turned into the dominant performer that the Packers are expecting him to be in the NFL. In his last six collegiate games, Bulaga allowed no sacks, no pressures and one tackle for loss (one-half in two games). In the Orange Bowl, Bulaga absolutely whipped Georgia Tech's Derrick Morgan, who wound up going at No. 16 to Tennessee. Bulaga allowed one-half tackle for loss in that game but delivered two touchdown-producing blocks.
In 10 games last year, Bulaga allowed two sacks, no additional pressures and 6.5 tackles for losses while producing 12 touchdown blocks. In those games, he faced five players who will be drafted this week. In 2008, Bulaga yielded 1.5 sacks in 13 games.
"Depending on how quickly he adjusts to the pro game, he certainly can help us a lot, hopefully," said Philbin, a former offensive line coach at Iowa. "Obviously, we drafted him with the belief that he's going to be able to come in here and compete and do that right away. How well he responds to the pro game, the speed, the adjustments, all that stuff, that remains to be seen. Certainly, he's made us a better offensive line. He's a quality individual. He wants to be a great player. That's a very, very important quality, we think."
The Packers need him to be a great player, because as we learned last year, if you can't protect the quarterback, chaos ensues.
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.