The Green Bay Packers’ draft class has been debated, graded and, at long last, observed on the practice field.
In the end, though, the grade given to general manager Ted Thompson’s latest rookie group will be determined by only one thing:
Can first-round pick Bryan Bulaga be the left tackle on offense for the next decade?
If Bulaga can handle the line’s most difficult and important position once veteran Chad Clifton runs out of gas, Thompson will get high marks for his draft.
Should Bulaga fail on the left side and yet have a long career at right tackle, Thompson will get a passing grade but not much more than that. And if Bulaga falls on his facemask, the draft will be judged a bust no matter what the other draftees do.
Early returns indicate Bulaga, an All-Big Ten Conference player at Iowa who was downgraded by some NFL teams for having short arms and suspect feet, has what it takes to be Clifton’s eventual replacement on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ blind side.
Of course, Bulaga hasn’t played against real speed in a competitive setting, so no lasting judgements can be made. But after one three-day rookie camp and a week of organized team activities, he has shown himself to be a smart, sound, hard-working player who should be able to overcome any less-than-ideal physical characteristics he might have.
“Bryan Bulaga will play tackle in this league, I don’t have any question about that,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “If we had any question about that, he probably wouldn’t be here in Green Bay. I don’t see any limitations for Bryan to fulfill his role here, whether it is left tackle, right tackle, wherever he may end up.”
He’d better end up at left tackle because that’s what he was drafted for. Most teams believe left tackles are found in the first round and the other line positions can be filled in later rounds, in large part because left tackles need special athletic skills to block the fast edge-rushers so prevalent in the NFL.
Because Bulaga was taken with the 23rd overall pick, he was sent directly to the left tackle line in his first workout. In a handful of practices since, he has shown that he might just stay there.
“There’s nothing I’ve seen so far that would say, ‘Boy, there’s no way he can play that position,’ ” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said.
Offensive line coach James Campen said Bulaga wants to be great, is fundamentally sound and has “good feet.” But does he have the feet needed to play left tackle?
“Sure he does, absolutely,” Campen said. “We saw that on the tape. He can play both tackles. He’ll be a tackle.”
There is nothing anyone can do about the length of Bulaga’s arms. However, Philbin and Campen said he might be a little quicker than he appeared on film.
Although Philbin notes that it’s very early in the evaluation process, he has been encouraged by many things about Bulaga.
“I like his attitude a whole lot,” Philbin said. “I like the way he bends in his stance; he’s got a real good bend. He plays with a pretty good base. He keeps his feet in contact with the ground real well at this point in time. And he seems to be picking up the offense pretty well. I haven’t seen him make a lot of mental errors.”
Philbin also said nimble feet are more important than arm length in pass blocking.
“The way you teach pass protection, at least the way we do here, is you’ve got to set first,” he said. “You’ve got to take away the direct rush lane of the defender before you do anything else. The punch is the second part of the process. I think he’s got good feet. He gets out of his stance well. He’s moving well. We like his quickness.”
Chances are they’re going to really like his run-blocking, which is not Clifton’s specialty. But more than anything, the Packers are impressed with Bulaga’s demeanor and approach. Even if he doesn’t have the quickest feet or the longest arms, his attitude, intelligence and fundamentals should more than compensate.
“In our world, in the offensive line, your fundamentals have to be intact whether you’re a special athlete or not,” Campen said. “At this level, you’re going to get beat if you’re not fundamentally sound. If you don’t have proper footwork and your body angles are all off, you’re going to struggle. As far as Bryan is concerned, he has a good, fundamentally sound base. He’s got a good platform to work with. You’re not starting from scratch with him.”
No one will know if Bulaga can handle NFL speed until he starts going against Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews in live drills during training camp. In the meantime, he’s earning a passing grade at left tackle.