Is moving Bulaga left the right move?
GREEN BAY, Wis. — From the moment the Green Bay Packers picked him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Bryan Bulaga’s preference has always been to play left tackle. And from the moment veteran Mark Tauscher went down with a shoulder injury early in Bulaga’s rookie season, Bulaga has always done what was asked of him, without complaint.
Now, he’s finally at left tackle, and the success of coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive line shuffle largely depends on him being a difference-maker there.
“I was excited about it,” Bulaga told Packer Report’s Bill Huber. (Contacted this week, Bulaga said he had been told to turn down further interview requests.) “Obviously, I didn’t know that this was going to happen. This was just something that was brought to my attention. I was excited about it and very thankful for the opportunity, and I’m just excited to get going with it. I’m happy that in these IPWs (individual player workouts) and OTAs (organized team activities) that we — me and Josh (Sitton) and Marshall (Newhouse) and T.J. (Lang) — can get our footwork down and get used to the position switch. I’m very thankful that (McCarthy) did it early so we can get used to things reversed, with right to left and left to right.”
McCarthy informed the linemen last week at the start of Phase II of the offseason program – which begins the on-field portion of workouts – that Bulaga was moving to left tackle, Sitton was moving from right guard to left guard, Lang was moving from left guard to right guard, and Newhouse was going to compete with Don Barclay and Derek Sherrod for the starting right tackle job.
McCarthy hinted that changes were in the offing on the left side of the line, but apparently he did not tell any of the players about his intentions until just before they hit the field.
Bulaga started at right tackle during the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV title run, and when Chad Clifton missed time with injuries in 2011, Bulaga – possibly in part because he had his own injuries that season – stayed at right tackle while Newhouse got the call to replace Clifton. Last year, before Bulaga’s season-ending hip injury, the Packers never publicly considered playing him anywhere but right tackle.
But going back to draft day, when Bulaga surprisingly fell to the Packers at No. 23, the former University of Iowa made it very clear where he wanted to play. He’d started 28 games in three years at Iowa; of those, five had been at left guard and 23 had been at left tackle.
“I’d choose left tackle,” Bulaga said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters immediately after his selection. “But I’m going to play where ever I’m needed.”
As a rookie, in Week 2, he first was needed at left tackle. Against the Buffalo Bills, a hobbled Clifton was benched after four series and replaced by Bulaga. But the following week, Clifton and his troublesome knee were back at left tackle, and it was Tauscher who played poorly in a loss at Chicago. The next week, Tauscher suffered a shoulder injury against Detroit, and Bulaga took over at right tackle.
It was his job from there. Bulaga started the final 12 regular-season games and all four playoff games at right tackle, including Super Bowl XLV, when he became the youngest player in NFL history to start a Super Bowl.
In 2011, Bulaga suffered a Week 3 knee injury at Chicago, so when Clifton went down with a major hamstring injury two weeks later at Atlanta, Marshall Newhouse – after starting in Bulaga’s place at right tackle – moved to left tackle, and rookie first-round pick Derek Sherrod came in at right tackle. When Bulaga was cleared to return to action the next week, he started at right tackle and Newhouse stayed put in Clifton’s spot.
By the end of the year, Newhouse had started 10 games at left tackle, then replaced an ineffective Clifton in the team’s NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants.
And last season, Bulaga started the Packers’ first nine games at right tackle before being felled by a season-ending hip injury Nov. 4 against Arizona. Even when Newhouse was inconsistent, the Packers never apparently considered moving Bulaga, whom McCarthy had said after the 2012 NFL Draft that the team had no intention of moving him.
“I don’t see any reason to go down that road,” McCarthy had replied when asked about moving Bulaga to left tackle. “I think Bryan is on the verge of being a Pro Bowler at right tackle. I look for him to have that type of season. He looks great.”
A year later, McCarthy was more cryptic in his response to the same question – “We’ve talked a number of different things,” he said – and now the move has been made.
Bulaga, 24, only played 587 snaps last year because of the hip injury that ended his season, but before going down he allowed four sacks, three quarterback hits and 20 pressures, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Of those, two sacks, one hit and eight pressures came in the Packers’ Week 3 loss at Seattle, when Bulaga had the worst night of his career.
McCarthy did not extensively explain his thought process on moving Bulaga when the shift became public in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story last week, but it would seem that the coach was reluctant to move Bulaga last season because he believed he’d become so effective as a right tackle.
“I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have full confidence in Bryan,” McCarthy told the Journal Sentinel. “He’s been here every day (in the offseason) and so I’ve seen him develop physically in all areas of his game. He’s a very mature player.”
So after watching Newhouse all season – per ProFootballFocus.com, Newhouse was charged with nine sacks, eight quarterback hits and 37 quarterback pressures in 1,256 snaps in 18 games — and seeing undrafted rookie free agent Don Barclay start the final four regular-season games and both playoff contests, McCarthy and his staff clearly think Bulaga is the better option on Rodgers’ blind side.
For this to work out, he’ll have to much better – even though Bulaga insists there’s no major difference between being the left tackle and being the right tackle.
“I’ve played right tackle for three years and I heard that question many a times. I think both positions are important. Especially in the offense that we run, I think both tackles have to be very good pass blockers,” Bulaga said. “I just look at it as Coach McCarthy wanting to make a switch and flip guys around.
“I’m happy that I got moved over to the left side. I’m thankful for it and it’s a good opportunity. I know all the talk that goes around — like you said about playing left tackle and it being a premier position and all of that — but I don’t look at it that way. I just look at it as playing a new position and doing the best I can.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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