Bryan Bulaga's rapid progress boosts Packers' offensive line outlook

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (75) gestures to the bench after going down hurt on a play against the Detroit Lions in the third quarter at Lambeau Field on Monday, November 6, 2017 in Green Bay, Wis.

GREEN BAY – Green Bay Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s enemy is no longer the right knee he tore up on Nov. 6 at Lambeau Field.

It’s time.

Bulaga reported for the start of training camp convinced he was ready to take part in all phases of practice, but when he arrived the powers that be put the brakes on him and informed him he would start camp on the physically unable to perform list.

They want to wait a little bit longer before clearing him.

“Yeah, I’m disappointed that I started on PUP,” Bulaga said Thursday after the team’s first practice. “(It’s) been a tough road rehabbing and getting back to this point and feeling really well at this point.

“I’m disappointed, but that’s part of the process and I’ve got to keep going.”

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Earlier in the day, coach Mike McCarthy said he thought Bulaga would ready for the season opener against Chicago, which came as a surprise to many given that Bulaga is not even nine months removed from tearing his right ACL.

If Bulaga, 29, is going to be ready for the season, it means he’s going to need several weeks of training camp practice. If that’s the case, it means his return isn’t that far away.

“He looks great,” McCarthy said. “I think Bryan has been here the whole summer except for maybe one day, two days. I know that he was in here every day that I was in here.”

It is not the strength of the knee that appears to be at issue but rather the anniversary date of when he suffered the injury. Those who suffer torn ACLs are usually sidelined anywhere from 9 to 12 months, but Bulaga is ahead of that schedule.

Asked what the team thought was the difference between him practicing now and in two weeks, Bulaga said it was team doctor Patrick McKenzie’s preference not to push the normal recovery time.

“I think the thing Doc really wants is to be at the nine-month mark,” Bulaga said. “So that’s something he and I’ve gone back and forth with. That’s always fun when Doc and I get to have a little back and forth. I understand it and kind of have to go with it.”

Given Bulaga’s nine years of experience, it wouldn’t make sense to take any chances with him. It probably would take him about three weeks to first regain confidence in his knee and then get his timing back.

He went through the same thing in 2013 when he tore his left ACL in a training camp practice and so he knows it won’t hurt him to wait another week or two. He returned in time to participate in the very first day of training camp back then and said this time around he approached the rehab in a much more aggressive fashion.

“The first time through you’re a little nervous, you think you’re going to do something to it, and the second time through you just kind of block it out and push through it and that speeds up the timeline,” Bulaga said. “If you baby it, kind of like I did the first time, it may set things back a little bit farther.”

Bulaga starting at right tackle on opening day seemed a bit far-fetched earlier in the off-season, but general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t do a lot to address his potential absence. He drafted tackle/guard Cole Madison in the fifth round and signed veteran Byron Bell, but that just added bodies to compete with unproven Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy.

There was a report that the Packers had asked Bulaga to take a pay cut, which, if true, would have confirmed that Gutekunst wasn’t confident the veteran tackle would be ready in time for the season.

Bulaga didn’t deny that the two sides might have talked, but he said the Packers never asked him to take a pay cut.

“It was just inaccurate,” Bulaga said. “There was never anything about a cut. I think from the get-(go) we’re always willing to talk. We have a good relationship with the guys upstairs.”

Bulaga didn’t say if the Packers sought to restructure his deal to help them deal with a tight cap early in the season, but given his confidence in a 2018 return, he probably wouldn’t have accepted anything that would compensate him less than his full $6.5 million salary this season.

Now, the Packers would be thrilled if Bulaga earns all that money because it would mean he had played in all 16 games. His return would be a huge boost for an offensive line that was patched together with twine last season after he got hurt against the Lions.

“He’s one of the best right tackles in the league,” guard Lane Taylor said. “To get that caliber of player back is awesome. He’s proved it year in and year out. He’s a good player. I’m excited. I can’t wait for him to get back out there and get with us.”

The Packers started four different players at right tackle, including right guard Justin McCray, who had to start there on the road against Atlanta in just his second NFL game. Though McCray battled every game in which he played there, it wasn’t his natural position and eventually Spriggs took over.

Spriggs struggled mightily before gaining a little bit of consistency late in the year, all in all making it the kind of year at right tackle to which the Packers weren’t accustomed.

How much Bulaga is affected from having had major knee surgery on both knees and a serious hip injury in 2012 could be evident as the season goes on. If he does return to form, McCarthy will be able to give Spriggs and Murphy more time to work at their game.

Madison’s status is up in the air after he failed to report for camp due to a personal situation.

Spriggs lined up as the starter ahead of Murphy in practice, but he did so knowing Bulaga would be back soon. It isn’t lost on him that the time Bulaga spends on PUP is his opportunity to prove himself worthy of a roster spot this year.

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Spriggs said. “It’s definitely not a bad spot. But I’m never going to hope that Bryan doesn’t come back. I’ve never been that kind of person. I hope he can come back and come back strong.”

If that happens, Bulaga thinks the line can get back to the level of play it was at in 2016 when the Packers went all the way to the NFC Championship. They still must figure out if McCray is their best option at right guard and who is capable of filling backup spots.

“I think we have a lot of good solid guys,” Bulaga said. “There are young guys who want to play and want to play well. So, when you have that kind of competition and that group of guys, normally good things happen."

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