Aaron Nagler chatted with Packers fans via Facebook Live on Friday afternoon. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
ORLANDO, Fla. - Follow the Green Bay Packers long enough and you’re likely to hear plenty about boards.
They have a draft board that ranks the prospects general manager Brian Gutekunst and his staff will consider later this month; a free-agent board that lists the best players waiting to be called off the street; a medical board in coach Mike McCarthy’s office that forecasts which players will be healthy enough to play in a given week. Surely there are others.
It stands to reason, then, that Gutekunst and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball have a board detailing all the cap hits for players under their employ, from the untouchables such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers to declining veterans whose contracts lend themselves to cuts when space is needed. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson was sacrificed when the Packers saw an opportunity to sign tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson.
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The decision set a precedent for Gutekunst’s judicious and reactive approach to salary-cap clearance rather than lopping off veterans preemptively, wherein the end result could be quite costly if the open market took an unexpected turn. It’s clear that Nelson was at the top of the casualty list should the Packers need a sudden wedge of space, and as free agency enters its secondary and tertiary stages, it’s fair to question who has been elevated to the top of the board.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered Nov. 6, would be a reasonable guess.
“Whenever players are injured it’s tough as personnel guys who are not 100 percent sure of when they’re coming back,” Gutekunst said at the annual league meeting. “But I know that he’s been working exceptionally hard. We’ve got a lot of faith that he’s going to come back sooner rather than later, and obviously when Bryan is in there, Bryan is a good player. We’re hoping everything goes well through the rehab process and we get him back as soon as we can.”
At 29, Bulaga is entering the second-to-last season of a five-year, $33.75 million extension that has been rather burdensome for the Packers given the player’s injury woes. When healthy, Bulaga is a solid right tackle who raises the level of performance for the offensive line as a whole. The problem is that he has appeared in just 33 of 48 regular-season games since signing the new deal March 20, 2015, and carries a cap hit of $7.9 million for 2018.
Still, McCarthy said he wants Bulaga to be part of the team next season.
“I would hope so,” McCarthy said. “All feedback I’ve been given is (positive). He’s in Florida training, he’s going through his rehab program. But just talking to Dr. (Patrick) McKenzie … he feels that Bryan is right on course.”
Should Gutekunst decide to release Bulaga — or if Bulaga is still recovering at the start of next season — the Packers may have two new faces along the right side of their offensive line. Veteran guard Jahri Evans was viewed as a short-term solution when he signed a one-year deal prior to last year’s draft, and it’s unclear whether the Packers would seriously entertain bringing back a player who turns 35 in September and whose physical abilities have started to wane. There’s also the possibility that, after 12 seasons, Evans simply decides to retire.
“Jahri is definitely part of the conversation,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know exactly where he is as far as what his goals are, but we’re open (to him returning).”
Kyle Murphy and Jason Spriggs are the most viable options to replace Bulaga from the Packers’ pool of players, though both are recovering from serious injuries themselves. Murphy underwent foot surgery in early October and finished the year on injured reserve, while Spriggs dislocated his kneecap in December and is questionable to participate in organized team activities, according to McCarthy.
At guard, Lucas Patrick and Justin McCray both gained valuable experience last season as injuries dinged every starter but Corey Linsley, who played all 16 games at center for just the second time in his career. McCray in particular was a savior of sorts for offensive line coach James Campen, rising from obscurity in the Arena Football League to take live snaps at four of the five positions. McCray finished with 56.7 percent playing time and deserves legitimate consideration as the starting right guard next season.
“I think he can develop into it, you know?” McCarthy said. “When you look at McCray and what he’s had to do as far as he’s playing three positions every day in practice because, you know, he has to take his snaps as the third center and an ability to play guard. Because the center/guard, there’s so much more communication. And then when you kick out to tackle it’s a whole different world from a footwork and fundamental standpoint. Really what he did last year is pretty special.”
With 12 picks in the upcoming draft, the Packers will almost certainly select a lineman or two whose presence could make Bulaga’s future even hazier. It all depends where they rank on Gutekunst’s board.