Big de­ci­sions

Cobb, Bu­laga fac­ing free agency

Packer Plus - - Front Page - By ROB REISCHEL

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.

MARK HOFF­MAN / MHOFFMAN@JOUR­NALSEN­TINEL.COM

Green Bay Pack­ers tackle Bryan Bu­laga sets up to block Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers de­fen­sive end Jac­quies Smith.

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