It didn’t take long for the Green Bay Packers to give first-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga a chance to start at left guard.
Barely more than a week into training camp, the Packers abandoned their plans of working Bulaga strictly at left tackle this year and had him splitting snaps with Daryn College at left guard with the No. 1 offense in practice Monday.
The competition could last two or three weeks – the Packers probably will want their starting line in place no later than the final week of the preseason – but the Packers wouldn’t be making this move if they didn’t think Bulaga had a good shot.
“(Bulaga) has earned this right,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s been impressive. I like what I’ve seen from the individual drills through the group drills all the way through the team drills, and I saw it again Saturday night (at the Family Night scrimmage). So we’re going to give him a shot.”
The move raises a potential question about Colledge’s future with the Packers if Bulaga wins the job. If that’s the case, the Packers might think they have enough depth on the offensive line to trade Colledge to a team looking for a starting guard. With 60 NFL starts and no games missed in his four previous season, the 28-year-old probably could fetch a mid-to late-round draft pick or a better backup than the Packers currently have at a position of need.
The Packers’ potential backups include T.J. Lang at several positions, including left guard, and Jason Spitz, who has split time during training camp as a backup at both guards and center. Breno Giacomini, a third-year pro, has improved noticeably this year as a backup at right tackle, and second-year pro Evan Dietrich-Smith has been sound as a backup center after unexpectedly making the Packers’ roster last year as an undrafted rookie.
Plus, the Packers spent a fifth-round draft pick this year on Marshall Newhouse, who has made strides after a rough start in camp. So that’s six backups possibly worth keeping, including whoever loses out at left guard, at a position group where the Packers only kept nine players at the start of last season. It’s not out of the question that they’d keep 11, but they might prefer to make a trade if the linemen stay healthy.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in that (offensive line) room,” Colledge said, “we’ve got to figure out who the nine guys we’re going to keep on this squad are. If Bryan can show his flexibility at left tackle and left guard, that makes him even more valuable to the Packers. I’m not reading a lot into it right now. If he’s ahead of me in Week 3 (of camp), I’ll start wondering what’s going on. But right now we’re still out there trying to compete.”
It’s worth noting that Colledge has held off several previous challenges to his starting job over the years, and that the anticipated competition between him and Spitz at left guard this year never materialized. Spitz is coming off major back surgery, and the Packers have been working him strictly as a backup at the three inside positions on the offensive line.
However, as durable and generally sound as Colledge has been in his career, he’s also been prone to the occasional breakdown play throughout his career, and that’s carried over into this, his fifth training camp. Moreover, Bulaga is more highly regarded than previous challengers – the Packers considered him talented enough to select with the No. 23 pick overall in this year’s draft. They also might like the idea of getting a little bigger on the line – Bulaga is 6-feet-5 and 315 pounds, to Colledge’s 6-4 and 308 – if they don’t have to sacrifice athletic ability.
“I have to go into every day believing I’m the best player on this offensive line, believing I’m the best left guard,” Colledge said. “If I stray away from that then a guy like Bulaga will step up and take the job away from me. So I’m going to continue to compete, continue to get better. I don’t want to be a good lineman, I want to be a great lineman. So I’m taking as many reps as I can, and I’m going to use this as even more motivation, more competition.
“Bulaga is a great young player, and he’s going to continue to push me. But he’s got a lot to learn too, and I’m going to help him out as best I can. If Bulaga’s a better answer than me, then we’re going to get the best five guys out there.”
The Packers’ plan going into camp was to work Bulaga strictly at left tackle so he’d be optimally trained at that critical position if starter Chad Clifton’s body breaks down in the regular season, whether for a week here or there, or a long stretch of games.
However, Bulaga played left guard as a freshman at the University of Iowa before moving to left tackle his last two years, and he impressed the coaching staff enough in the past week to get moved Monday.
“I’m thrilled about it,” Bulaga said, “it’s awesome, a great opportunity. That’s really the most I can say about it, it’s going to be good competition.”
In most drills Monday, Colledge took the first two snaps at left guard and then gave way to Bulaga for the next couple. They ended up splitting the snaps about evenly among both the first and second teams.
Bulaga also worked at left guard in one-on-one pass blocking drills for the first time since joining the team. He won all three snaps: twice he blocked seventh-round draft pick C.J. Wilson, who is 6-3 and 290 pounds, and on the other he handled second-year pro Jarius Wynn (6-3, 285).
“(Bulaga) has got a lot of ability,” center Scott Wells said. “Has some good feet, understands the game, which is important. He can be very versatile for us. He’s got a lot of splashes of Chad (Clifton) in him. Very good with his hand placement, flat back. He’s got the tools.”