Bryan Bulaga might be the key to the Green Bay Packers' offseason.
Their starting right tackle will be an unrestricted free agent in March, and his return to the Packers is far from a given.
If the Packers re-sign him, it won't be cheap, and it will limit their other offseason options.
If they don't, they'll have more money but also a hole at right tackle and a lost chance at keeping their starting offensive line intact for at least two more years. A three-year run is exceptionally long for a front five in today's NFL.
"You can only pay so many guys on your roster," said Josh Sitton, the Packers' left guard. "Guys get split up all the time, that's what happens in this league. If we could get (Bulaga) done it would be awesome. We've proved that with time we can come together and be one of the better lines in the league. If it turned into a couple years I think we could be even better."
Bulaga is one of 11 Packers players who will be unrestricted free agents in March. The list includes several other starters and valuable young backups: Randall Cobb, Tramon Williams, Davon House, Letroy Guion, John Kuhn and injured B.J. Raji.
Of all the Packers' free agents, Cobb is the no-brainer. He's a playmaker, is uncommonly young (24) for an impending free agent and has made it through the regular season healthy. At 5-feet-10½ he's a smallish receiving target, but he's good with the ball in his hands and makes the Packers harder to defend because he can line up in the backfield in five-receiver sets.
Cobb has the leverage of free agency just around the corner and might even end up with a slightly better contract than Jordy Nelson, who in July signed a five-year deal that averages $8.5 million a season. Regardless, it's hard to see the Packers letting him hit the open market.
They also have opened negotiations with Guion, according to a report this week on ESPN.com. There's every reason to think that deal will get done well before the start of free agency, and the best guess is it will average somewhere in the range of $2 million to $3 million a season.
After that, nothing's close to a sure thing with this class, and much will hinge on what happens with Bulaga.
For a quick set-up, here's a look at the Packers' 2015 salary cap heading into the offseason.
The NFL has informed teams that the '15 cap will be between $138.6 million and $141.8 million. But the league has under-projected the last few years, and a report on ProFootballTalk said it more likely will be about $145 million.
The Packers will carry over about $7.5 million in cap room from this year. So their cap probably will fall somewhere between $146 million to $152.5 million.
According to Spotrac.com and the NFL players union, the Packers have contract commitments of about $122.3 million in 2015. By releasing inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, which appears likely, they can knock $7.25 million from that number, to about $115 million.
That means the Packers probably will have somewhere between $31 million and $37 million in cap room to start the offseason.
Some of that money – $5 million or so – will go to the next draft class. Some will go to contract tenders, including restricted free agents Don Barclay and Sean Richardson, that will likely cost another $4 million to $5 million.
That will leave general manager Ted Thompson with anywhere from $21 million to $27 million in cap room to re-sign his own free agents; perhaps add one or two free agents from other teams; and leave room for any moves he might make during the '15 season.
The ability to structure contracts that are either light or heavy on the cap in '15 will play a factor too. Thompson might be able to keep one or two players' cap numbers low for '15 and push higher costs into 2016, because his free-agent class a year from now shouldn't be as costly.
The 2016 class includes probably only one big-ticket player in Mike Daniels, with cornerback Casey Hayward behind him. Also among that class will be Nick Perry, Mike Neal, Mason Crosby, James Starks and Andrew Quarless.
Thompson definitely has the money to make a solid run at Bulaga, but the question is whether the bidding will get too high to justify the cost.
Bulaga could be the best right tackle on the market, at least before teams cut players in the offseason to save cap money. Probably next on the list is Dallas' Doug Free. That will drive up Bulaga's value.
But Bulaga's injury history could give teams pause: He's missed 28 games in four seasons and has had two serious injuries: to his hip nine games into 2012, and a torn ACL in training camp in '13.
This year Bulaga has helped his case by staying mostly healthy and playing good football, especially later in the season. He missed 1½ games because of a knee injury early in the season and was unable to finish three weeks ago at Buffalo because of a concussion. Before leaving that Buffalo game he basically neutralized defensive end Mario Williams, who was voted to this year's Pro Bowl.
The NFL's highest-paid right tackle is Indianapolis' Gosder Cherilus, who as a free agent in 2013 signed a five-year deal that averages $7 million and included $15.5 million fully guaranteed. That year Minnesota's Phil Loadholt signed a four-year deal that averages $6.25 million and included $7 million fully guaranteed.
If the Packers can get Bulaga for a deal in that range, they should do it, even though that would give them three well paid linemen (guards Josh Sitton at an average of $5.8 million a year and T.J. Lang at $4.6 million). But if the cost creeps up much higher than $7 million, into the range of left tackle money, Thompson would have to start thinking hard.
Weighing against paying more is that when teams cut costs, offensive line is a place they often do it. As Sitton said, the Packers can't pay everybody. They probably can find someone cheaper to get them by, and they'd have more money to sign a free agent or two at their position of greatest need, inside linebacker.
Maybe the replacement could be Barclay, who is coming back from an ACL tear in camp and started 21 games there (playoffs included) in '12 and '13 combined. Maybe JC Tretter, who did OK against Williams until getting beaten for a strip-sack safety late in the game. Maybe it could be a draft pick.
However, Bulaga is the much preferred option.
Barclay, for one, could be diminished after his injury. Even if not, his past performance suggests he's better suited as a utility backup (at both guards, right tackle, and even possibly center) than full-time player.
And whether Tretter is even viable is a question. He simply might not be stout enough to play that position — the Packers drafted him as a guard/center — and would have to make huge strength gains to have a chance.
Also, if Bulaga leaves, tackle would become an even bigger draft priority unless Thompson found a decent free agent. The Packers have enough draft needs — beginning with inside linebacker and tight end — to not want to move starting right tackle to the top of the list.
At cornerback, it's hard to see Thompson spending the money it would take to keep Williams and House. Each could cost in the range of $4 million a year — House maybe even more because of he's only 25 and a potential starter.
Two months ago I would have guessed Thompson would make the younger player, House, the priority. He could replace Williams, who will be 32 in March, in the starting lineup next season.
But House hasn't been able to stay healthy. He had hamstring and ankle injuries that limited his availability as a rookie in '11; a shoulder injury that sidelined him for six games in '12; and after playing in every game in '13 missed the last three games this season because of a broken shoulder blade.
Now I'd bet Thompson will re-sign Williams, who possibly has been the Packers' best cover man this season. He's not as fast as a few years ago, but his play hasn't slipped that much, and he appears to have the quick-twitch talent for another good season, maybe even two, despite his age.
Of course, everything is fluid and could change depending on what happens in the playoffs. But either way, the Packers will lose their uncommon depth at cornerback. Doubly so if both players leave.
Here's a projection of the Packers' other free agents:
Raji: Coming off a season-ending torn biceps, his market will be even softer than last year, when he decided to re-sign with the Packers for a $4 million prove-it deal. He's been around the team all season even while injured, so the smart money says he's back at a similar but even cheaper deal next season.
Kuhn: The All-Pro fullback is nearing the end because of age (33 next September) and cost. Maybe the veteran's minimum salary benefit will get him another season. The Packers can pay him the minimum for a player with nine years of service ($870,000) but have him count on their cap only as much a player with two years' service ($585,000).
Jarrett Bush: He's stayed in the game an unusually long time (nine years) as a special-teams cover man but will be 31 in May. He's eligible for the same contract as Kuhn, which might get him back in camp.
Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien: Both backup quarterbacks are unrestricted, and good luck predicting what will happen with them. The guess here is both re-sign for minimum deals, though only one makes the roster next season.
Jamari Lattimore: The backup inside linebacker finished the season on injured reserve (ankle). He wasn't playing much before getting hurt, so he appears likely to move on.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty