Sometime next week Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy will very likely make public the Packers' plans for how they plan to deploy their tackles, both left and right, while at the annual NFL owners meetings in Orlando.
As of the NFL Combine, McCarthy still hadn't decided, citing transition on the coaching staff contributing to a delay in evaluation of personnel. He also wanted to opportunity to personally speak with Bryan Bulaga and inform him what the staff decided.
Truly, a compelling argument can be made either way whether to install Bulaga or David Bakhtiari as Aaron Rodgers' blindside protector.
Bulaga is the experienced veteran, a Super Bowl champion and has the more ideal size suited for being a franchise left tackle, one inch taller and roughly 14 lbs. heavier than Bakhtiari.
On the other hand, Bakhtiari has the longer arms, quicker feet and room to improve, entering just his second year in the NFL.
The good news for the Packers is that they probably can't go wrong either way. It's an enviable position. They have plenty of options to choose from, and if Derek Sherrod can finally get healthy, he's not out of the mix at both tackle positions either.
So what will be deciding factor? Probably something that doesn't have anything with their play on the field.
With Bulaga entering the final season of his contract, the Packers can influence his earning power by switching Bulaga back to right tackle, where he spent the first three seasons of his career.
The coaching staff may not admit the financial ramifications play a factor, but they also don't have to. McCarthy can cite any number of reasons, such as not wanting to move Bakhtiari and mess up his rapport with Josh Sitton. He can also express a desire to move Bulaga back to the strong-side of the offensive line, where he can help pave the way for Eddie Lacy in the run game. Those are all perfectly legit reasons too.
Last season the Packers made the decision to slide Bulaga to the opposite edge, pairing him with Sitton on the left side of the offensive line. That was before Bulaga's torn ACL early in training camp halted such a development.
Before the Packers even consider offering Bulaga a contract extension, he's going to have to prove he can stay healthy after landing on injured reserve each of the past two seasons. In 2012, his campaign ended after suffering a fracture in the capsule of his left hip.
Assuming he does stay healthy, the Packers face the challenge of fitting Bulaga into a salary-cap structure made increasingly difficult by booming salaries league-wide.
The Packers also figure to extend the contracts of another pair of players before they hit free agency next season in wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. They represent another piece of the salary-cap puzzle and could impact what the Packers have left to offer Bulaga.
Certainly there are different ways to judge the value of NFL players, such as guaranteed dollars and length of a contract, but just a cursory look at the average per year salaries of left tackles compared to right tackles shows a significant difference.
The NFL's highest-paid right tackle, Gosder Cherilus of the Indianapolis Colts, makes $7 million per season. At that rate, Cherilus would rank 16th on the list of the highest-paid left tackles.
It's impossible to look at the Bulaga situation in a vacuum. If there's an NFL team that thinks he could be their franchise left tackle and Bulaga is dead set on testing the open market, there's a chance someone could pay him in excess of $9 million a season, especially if he has a strong bounce-back year—even if it comes at right tackle.
But as B.J. Raji found out, a bird in hand is better than two in the bush. And that's exaclty what the Packers will offer, a bird in hand.
If Bulaga proves to be the same player he's been his first three years in professional football—good but not great, solid but not spectacular—and particularly if he's slow to recover from last year's knee injury, then naming him the Packers' right tackle makes a whole lot of sense financially. And it's not as that decision would be a hindrance from a competitive standpoint either.
Bakhtiari has just as much entitlement to be the Packers' left tackle as Bulaga after being a steadying influence in 2013.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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