Bulaga reportedly signs 5-year, $33.75 million deal
The best offensive line Mike McCarthy feels he's coached in nine seasons in Green Bay will get an encore.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported late Tuesday that the Packers have re-signed right tackle Bryan Bulaga on a five-year, $33.75 million contract, though the team has yet to confirm a finalized deal.
After making $2,665,500 in the final year of his rookie deal, Bulaga's new contract will put him in the same ballpark as all-pro left guard Josh Sitton, who also signed a five-year, $33.75 million extension in 2011. His signing bonus was $6 million.
The annual $6.75 million salary of Bulaga and Sitton paces the offensive line.
The 6-foot-5, 321-pound tackle reportedly received interest from Buffalo, Washington and Tampa Bay before telling teammates he planned to re-sign hours before the official start of free agency at 3 p.m. Central Time, according to ESPN.
The move would ensure the Packers have their starting offensive line in place for at least the next two seasons. The team hasn't entered the regular season with the same starting offensive line in back-to-back seasons since 2004.
The Packers allowed their fewest number of sacks (31) since 2007 and Eddie Lacy rushed for 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. McCarthy told reporters at the NFL scouting combine last month that the continuity of the offensive line played a significant role in the league's top-scoring offense.
"History will tell you if you have five guys who line up and play together week in and week out, you're going to have a pretty good offensive line," McCarthy said. "This line is the best line I've coached in my time in Green Bay all the way through. What we ask of them as far as their responsibility is more than we've ever done. The continuity they've created has been awesome. The production is definitely the best we've had. This has definitely been our best group."
Although general manager Ted Thompson isn't active in unrestricted free agency, he made two significant moves in re-signing Bulaga and receiver Randall Cobb, who were seen by many as the top free agent at their respective position.
Bulaga, 25, missed 23 regular-season games over two seasons because of hip and knee injuries, but bounced back with 17 starts at right tackle last season. He missed one game with a sprained MCL in Week 2 against the New York Jets, the only game a preferred starting lineman missed all season.
The former first-round pick's value seemed to jump after fellow tackles Jeremy Parnell (five years, $32 million), Doug Free (three years, $15 million) and Derek Newton (five years, $26.5 million) reached lucrative deals over the weekend.
There was some injury concern with Bulaga, who's missed 28 regular-season games over the last five years, but it didn't seem to scare off many suitors. It certainly didn't deter Thompson, who traditionally has been leery of players with injury histories.
The Packers still took out an insurance policy in tendering restricted-free agent offensive lineman Don Barclay a right-of-first-refusal contract worth $1.542 million Tuesday. Barclay, 25, missed all of last season after reconstructive knee surgery, but made 18 starts in place of an injured Bulaga in 2012 and 2013.
If he's able to get back to where he was before, Barclay likely would enter training camp as the team's top reserve at both guard spots and right tackle. His ability to play multiple positions is important since it doesn't force any starters to move out of their best position to fill a void.
A number of his teammates, mostly notable right guard T.J. Lang, have reiterated their wishes to have Bulaga back in the fold. With Barclay out, the Packers struggled to replace Bulaga when he injured a knee against Seattle in the opener and after he sustained a concussion in Week 15 against Buffalo.
On the first occasion, the Packers deployed former first-round pick Derek Sherrod in Bulaga's place. He gave up a pair of sacks, including one that resulted in a strip sack of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Sherrod recovered the ball in the Packers' end zone for a safety. Green Bay lost the game 36-16.
The Packers cut Sherrod at midseason when JC Tretter was activated from temporary injured reserve. However, Tretter suffered a similar fate when he had to replace Bulaga against the Bills.
Defensive end Mario Williams beat Tretter badly in the waning moments around the edge, forcing a Rodgers fumble for a safety. The Bills won 21-13, a loss that prevented the Packers from claiming the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
Bulaga, who returned the following week against Tampa Bay, played well during the final stretch and was a key contributor in keeping Rodgers clean during the team's playoff run. That was a necessity after Rodgers tweaked a calf against the Buccaneers and played with limited mobility the remainder of the season.
If Bulaga left, the Packers likely would need to draft a tackle in the early rounds. With an agreement in place, Thompson is able to turn his attention to other needs like inside linebacker, tight end and possibly cornerback if Tramon Williams follows Davon House out of Green Bay.
For the moment, the offensive line appears set. Sitton, Lang and left tackle David Bakhtiari are under contract through the 2016 season. Starting center Corey Linsley won't hit free agency until 2017. Their three primary backups — Barclay, Tretter and guard Lane Taylor — have at least two seasons of NFL experience.
The decision to bring back Cobb and Bulaga should please Rodgers, who threw for more than 4,300 yards and was sacked only 28 times en route to winning his second league MVP award last season.
Plus, the Packers have nearly all of their key offensive positions locked up for the foreseeable future. Nelson and Cobb are signed through 2018 with No. 3 receiver Davante Adams under contract through 2017.
Running back Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 1,139 yards last season, will be paired with the Packers' starting offensive line for at least two more seasons. Rodgers is the only contracted player with a deal through the 2019 season.
There still are variables. Injuries will happen. Still, the moves the Packers have made over the past week should put them in position to make a run at the fifth Super Bowl title that eluded them this past season.
-- firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod