Editor's note: Prior to the start of the new league year in March, Press-Gazette Media is counting down the top unrestricted, restricted and exclusive-right free agents the Green Bay Packers will have to decide on this offseason.
Mike McCarthy has often touted the 2014 offensive line as the finest in his nine years as head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
If the organization is able to re-sign Bryan Bulaga, the Packers would be well-positioned to keep that starting five intact for at least two more seasons barring injury.
It just comes down to how much they're willing to pay for that luxury.
After spending the better part of two years on injured reserve, the 6-foot-5, 314-pound right tackle showed little rust in his comeback campaign. He had a small scare in the Packers' regular-season opener against Seattle when he sprained his MCL, but missed only one game the rest of the year.
Bulaga was instrumental in the offensive line giving up its fewest sacks (30) since the 2007 season and helped propel Eddie Lacy toward his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season. The ability to keep the pocket clean was especially important in the playoffs when Aaron Rodgers was hampered by a calf injury.
Outside of a shaky performance against Miami, Bulaga played like one of the league's elite. It was the kind of season he needed after missing 23 consecutive regular-season games with hip and knee injuries that landed him on injured reserve.
Still only 25 years old, Bulaga is seen by many as the best tackle on the free-agent market. Other right tackles on the verge of free agency include Derek Newton (Houston) and Joe Barksdale (St. Louis). Manitowoc native Doug Free was scheduled to join them, but ESPN.com reported Saturday morning that he and the Dallas Cowboys have agreed to a three-year deal.
In the coming days, Packers general manager Ted Thompson will need decide how much he values Bulaga as one of his line's bookends, especially if the market could make him one of the league's highest paid right tackles. That price currently runs about $7 million per season.
The Packers have options if Bulaga leaves, though his previous replacement, Don Barclay, is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Another option, JC Tretter, has been groomed more as an interior lineman and never started an NFL game. Undoubtedly, the Packers would have to delve back into the draft for reinforcements.
If Bulaga returns, the Packers have the chance to keep one of their strongest position groups together. Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and left tackle David Bakhtiari are signed through 2016. Lang even took to Twitter Saturday morning, playfully encouraging the Packers to bring back his linemate.
The Packers lost their exclusive negotiating rights with their own unrestricted free agents at 11 a.m. CST Saturday. That opens a three-day window where agents for those players can speak with other teams about perimeters of a deal.
Free agency officially begins at 3 p.m. CDT on Tuesday.
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Bryan Bulaga, sixth-year tackle.
The skinny: Unrestricted free agent.
The stats: 15 starts, seven penalties (five false starts, two holding).
2014 salary: $2,665,500.
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11. FB John Kuhn
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6. DT B.J. Raji