SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The game lost, Bryan Bulaga kicked out to his right in pass protection on San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Dee Ford. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers received the shotgun snap behind him. Bulaga accepted the blow, and clamped his arms around Ford. Behind him, 49ers rookie Nick Bosa took too deep a rush and looped around Rodgers — right into the back of Bulaga’s jersey and legs.
Rodgers was sacked behind him by 49ers defensive end Arik Armstead and fumbled, with guard Billy Turner recovering it for a nine-yard loss.
Bulaga lay face down for a moment before slowly pushing himself up. He shook his head slightly before slowly rising to one knee, and then finally his feet. He finished the Packers' final three offensive plays of the game, which very well could be the final plays of his career in Green Bay.
“You think about it before you go out there,” Bulaga said after the game. “There’s always potential this is could be the last one. We were in the playoffs. And now that the season’s over, yeah, we’ll see. But I think at first you reflect on the season and think back on success you had and things we did well. There will be a time for the next phase of this thing.”
The 30-year-old tackle played in 16 regular-season games for the first time since 2016 and only the third time in his 10-year career. He lost more than 10 pounds in the days leading up to the divisional-round game against Seattle, an illness knocking him out of the lineup just before kickoff. He missed snaps during the season due to a sprained knee, dislocated knuckles and a concussion, but was back the next week.
After Sunday’s 37-20 loss in the NFC championship, the third such loss of his career, Bulaga was in a reflective mood. It marked the last game of the five-year, $33.1 million extension he signed in March 2015.
“I mean, it was fun,” he said in a quiet visitor’s locker room at Levi’s Stadium. “Definitely appreciate coach (Matt) LaFleur and (offensive line) coach (Adam) Stenavich believing in me, bringing me in and allowing me to stay here and be part of this. It was a lot of fun. it’s been an enjoyable year. I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the future — it’s not really my gig — but all I know is it’s been a good 10 years. It’s been fun. We’ll see what happens.”
Drafted No. 23 overall out of Iowa in 2010, Bulaga has started 111 of the 115 games he has played. An injured hip forced him to miss seven games in 2012. He then missed the 2013 season after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament in training camp and 11 games in 2017 after tearing his left ACL.
But, as he stated earlier in the season, he reiterated Sunday he is ready to continue his career.
“Yeah, there’s no doubt,” he said.
And there will be a robust market for him. Though Bulaga admittedly is not a fan of the analytical service Pro Football Focus, it did give him a 97.2 for pass-blocking efficiency, which was tied for 21st in the NFL among tackles who played at least 10 games. After Tennessee’s Jack Conklin, Bulaga is objectively the next-best right tackle set to hit the market — a market that has exploded at the top end since he last signed a deal.
Philadelphia’s All-Pro right tackle Lane Johnson signed a four-year, $72 million extension in November. He will be 30 in May while Bulaga will turn 31 in March, but Johnson has also played only one full season in his seven-year career.
As it stands, there aren’t any proven, younger options on the roster.
The Packers drafted Jason Spriggs in the second round and Kyle Murphy in the sixth round in 2016, but neither panned out. Alex Light has been on the team the last two seasons as an undrafted free agent, and the team signed rookie John Leglue off the New Orleans practice squad in late December, but he was never active.
“I’m not going to think like that,” Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “I’ve had my moment with him, and I’m just going to be very positive about it.
“Yeah, he’s a free agent, I understand that. He should be a Packer for life. He’s been a really good buddy of mine, and we’ll see.”
Veteran Jared Veldheer came out of retirement to play well in the regular-season finale and the playoff win over Seattle at the age of 32, but he will also be a free agent.
There is time for the Packers to evaluate and project what they want to do with Bulaga. Provided there is no new collective bargaining agreement to change things, March 10 is the deadline for a team to use the franchise or transition tags and the legal tampering period for free agents begins March 16.
Bulaga didn’t hazard any guesses as to what his future holds, but the Illinois native allowed that the city of Green Bay has “been home. Started a family. Grew up. Pretty much became a real adult in Green Bay.
"Bought my first house. Got married. Had kids. It’s been fantastic. So, like I said, I’m not sure if this is it or not, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there and see what progresses.”
Ryan Wood of the Green Bay Press-Gazette contributed