Cobb, Bulaga facing free agency
Green Bay — It was the Green Bay Packers’ best offensive line in more than a decade, maybe longer.
Now, keeping it together will be an enormous challenge.
Bryan Bulaga, who according to Pro Football Focus was the second-best pass blocking right tackle in the NFL, is set to become a free agent in March. And with the 25-year-old Bulaga coming off a career year, he could very well become football’s highest-paid right tackle.
“If it was up to me . . . everyone would love to stay where they were drafted,” Bulaga said last week. “Everyone wants to be where they first came in and started to contribute. But again, we just have to see what happens.”
Indianapolis’ Gosder Cherilus is currently the top-paid right tackle in football. In March, 2013, Cherilus signed a five-year, $35 million contract with $15.5 million guaranteed. Cherlius was 28 when he signed that deal.
San Francisco’s Anthony Davis ranks No. 2 in average salary ($6.60 million). In April, 2013, Davis signed a five-year, $33.2 million deal with $8.38 million guaranteed.
Bulaga just finished his rookie contract that paid him $13.245 million over five years and ranked 20th last season in average yearly salary ($2.649 million).
Bulaga will be the best right tackle on the freeagent market, with Dallas’ Doug Free close behind. And the bidding for Bulaga could easily eclipse Cherilus’ annual $7 million contract.
“Right now, I’m really not even thinking about it to be honest with you,” Bulaga said one day after the Packers’ season ended. “That’s really the last thing on my mind. It’s a ‘we’ll see what happens’ kind of deal.”
Bulaga is certainly hitting the market at the right time.
Bulaga missed 26 of a possible 35 games in the 2012 and ’13 seasons due to hip and knee injuries. But Bulaga started 17 of 18 games this year and was downright dominant at times.
According to Pro Football Focus, the only right tackles to have better overall years than Bulaga were New England’s Sebastian Vollmer, Philadelphia’s Lane Johnson and Baltimore’s Ricky Wagner. And Wagner was the only right tackle with a higher pass blocking grade than Bulaga.
The fact Bulaga won't turn 26 until March 21 will be a huge plus. Bulaga’s value could also rise if a team believes he can play left tackle, a position he was slated for with the Packers in 2013 before he tore his ACL.
Perhaps the only red flag on Bulaga will be a lengthy injury history that also includes four missed games in 2011 with a knee injury.
“I’m very proud of what Bryan’s overcome with his injuries, and he deserves everything that comes to him,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Bulaga late in the season.
In all likelihood that means Bulaga will be getting a big-time contract. And whether or not the Packers get in a bidding war will be interesting.
As Packers left guard Josh Sitton opined last week: “There’s going to be a lot of people who aren’t going to be on the team — a lot of people we can’t pay.”
Green Bay could try holdovers Don Barclay or J.C. Tretter at right tackle.
Barclay started there in 2013 when Bulaga missed the season. But Barclay will be coming off a torn ACL injury himself.
Tretter has had injuries issues each of his first two seasons and struggled in limited playing time this season.
The Packers could also address right tackle early in the draft. But Green Bay already has a glaring hole at inside linebacker, a strong need at tight end and potential depth issues at cornerback.
If the Packers can keep Bulaga in the fold, they’ll bring back a quintet that was downright dominant the second half of 2014.
According to PFF, left guard Josh Sitton and right guard T.J. Lang both were the second-ranked players at their positions in 2014.
Sitton has ranked in the top eight of all NFL guards since 2009 and finished as the NFL’s highest-rated pass blocking guard this year. In fact, Sitton hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 3, 2013.
Lang has always been a strong pass blocker but took his run blocking to a new level this year. And his performance in a Week 16 win at Tampa Bay was the highest rated by PFF by a Green Bay lineman in 2014.
Rookie Corey Linsley was the No. 5 rated center by PFF and has a remarkably bright future. Linsley allowed just one sack and two hurries all season, and was borderline dominant in the run game.
David Bakhtiari ranked 23rd among left tackles that started at least half the season, according to PFF. Bakhtiari allowed six sacks, five quarterback hits and 18 hurries. Bakhtiari was slightly better than 2013 (eight sacks, four hits, 27 hurries) but must continue to add strength.
The last time the Packers had a line this good was 2003, and that group’s average age was 28.0. Green Bay’s 2014 line had an average age of 25.2.
“Very proud of the way the offensive line as a group that we played, and the way the offense played,” Bulaga said. “It was a good year from that standpoint. The end goal is getting to the Super Bowl. That’s what we wanted. But from a standpoint of how the offense did and how we came together as a unit, I was proud of that.
“I love playing next to T.J. and all these guys. All these guys are really close friends, our families are really close. You’d love to keep a good thing together. That’s just the way it is. But this is a business and we just have to see what happens.”
Packer Nation will be holding its collective breath.
Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga sets up to block Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Jacquies Smith.