A year ago, Bryan Bulaga didn't know whether he would be a starting tackle for the Green Bay Packers again.
After a hip injury ended his 2012 season prematurely, Bulaga tore an anterior cruciate ligament at the team's family night scrimmage in 2013. He required season-ending reconstructive knee surgery. The comeback was over before it began.
The setback took more of a mental toll than a physical one. After missing 26 consecutive games (including playoffs), Bulaga admittedly wasn't interested in talking about football. He worked out and rehabbed for a return, but otherwise spent his days in Florida playing golf.
Bulaga can now look back on those disappointments in a positive light. In 2014, he returned to his post at right tackle and enjoyed the injury-free season he desperately needed. He started 17 games (including playoffs) on what coach Mike McCarthy considers the best offensive line the team has had during his time in Green Bay.
On Wednesday, the Packers rewarded Bulaga with a five-year, $33.75 million contract that included an $8 million signing bonus. Everything had come full circle.
"When I was hurt, I just wouldn't even want to talk about anything," Bulaga said on a conference call with Green Bay media on Thursday. "To be able to come home and talk to your family, your wife about something you love and you care about, which is football – that makes a big difference."
Although McCarthy said at last year's NFL owners meetings that he had Bulaga penciled in at right tackle, the 6-foot-5, 314-pound tackle wasn't sure where he would fit in the Packers' plans once he was healthy again.
Rookie David Bakhtiari had settled in at left tackle. Don Barclay had started 18 regular-season games in his place at right. Bulaga, a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, had to prove himself all over again.
"When I tore my ACL and was down here in Florida rehabbing, we didn't really know if – obviously I figured I'd probably be back with the team, but I didn't know what my role was going to be," Bulaga said. "I didn't know if even this year if they'd have me back. The future was a little bit uncertain. All I knew is I could control what I can control and that was go out there and play as good of football as I can."
It was clear early in training camp that Bulaga was going to keep his starting spot at right tackle, but the depth at the position took a significant hit when Barclay tore an ACL. During the third preseason game, starting center JC Tretter also sustained a knee injury and missed half the season.
That turned out to be the last incapacitating injury the Packers' offensive line would endure all season. Bulaga sprained an MCL in the opener against Seattle and missed one game. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang battled lower-body injuries, but the starting five remained intact the remainder of the season.
Blocking for MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Bulaga was a key figure in a Packers offense that led the NFL in scoring. Running back Eddie Lacy became Green Bay's first running back to run for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons since 2009. Rodgers was sacked only 28 times all season.
The continuity of the offensive line and Bulaga's ability to put injuries in the past made him a focal point of the Packers' offseason plans. He said he had interest from roughly four other teams. Bulaga weighed the offers with his wife against what it would mean to remain with the Packers.
He spoke with Lang and Sitton, his linemates, about three or four times per week during the process. When he finally broke the news to the two guards that he was coming back, neither believed him at first.
"When I let them know the morning whenever the terms were finalized, they were pretty excited," Bulaga said. "They didn't really believe me at first. They thought I was just screwing with them. I think T.J. finally settled into the idea that I was staying after I told him he was going to have to be paying me out when I beat him in golf all summer. I think he's finally settled into the realization of that. They were fired up."
The Packers have their starting offensive line signed through the 2016 season. Rookie center Corey Linsley, who stepped up when Tretter was injured, looks like he could become the long-term answer at the position that Rodgers has been clamoring for.
Barring injury, the Packers are poised to feature the same starting offensive line for the first time in back-to-back seasons since 2004. Bulaga, who'll turn 26 next week, believes the best is yet to come for the line.
"From the offensive line standpoint, I think we can be better," Bulaga said. "I think as a group any guy would say it, as a group we started a little slow at the beginning of the year. So I think we can get better. Everyone is going to be one year older. Corey will be a year older, a year wiser. Dave, too. Everyone has another year under their belt."
There was some disappointment in the way his comeback season ended. The Packers' 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game made everyone involved take a hard look in the mirror about what they could have done differently.
A starved market for proven tackles could have made him a wealthy man elsewhere in the league, but the native of Barrington, Ill., felt it was in his best interest to return to the place he started his NFL career five years ago.
There's comfort in Green Bay and in the Packers' locker room. That's why Bulaga chose to stay.
"My thought process is how talented of a football team we do have," Bulaga said. "So knowing that is also a big reason in my mind why I would choose Green Bay over a lot of places, because I know year in and year out we're going to be competing for a championship, and that's fun. That's what playing this game is all about, is competing for championships and making runs like that."
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