GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers are supremely confident in their ability to develop football players, and with good reason.
They have a 20-year history of taking players who were drafted in the middle or late rounds and turning them into long-term contributors. In recent years, they’ve had considerable success with undrafted rookies as well.
When the Packers two weeks ago switched fourth-year offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga from the right to the left side, however, it was an admission their ability to manufacture football players has its limits. Especially at left tackle.
The Packers could have been stubborn and crossed their fingers hoping Marshall Newhouse would grow in the role as the blind-side pass protector for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In almost two seasons as the starter, Newhouse has been more inconsistent than incapable.
But it seems like the Packers watched Rodgers take too many hits — a league-high 51 sacks — last season and decided they can’t wait any longer for Newhouse to gain consistency. Besides, all they need to do is look around the NFL to see that Newhouse was a long shot to succeed at one of the most important positions on any team.
In the pass-first NFL of today, left tackles aren’t developed, they’re drafted.
Bulaga was the Packers’ first-round draft pick in 2010, but he wasn’t going to unseat Chad Clifton at left tackle so he settled in at right tackle and ended up starting as a rookie when Mark Tauscher sustained an early season injury. When healthy, Bulaga has been there ever since.
Newhouse was drafted in the same year as Bulaga but in the fifth round. He bounced around as a backup at several positions before replacing Clifton when the latter went down with an injury early in the 2011 season.
You might think draft position has nothing to do with any of this, but the current state of the NFL says otherwise. A capable left tackle is one of the most coveted players on any team and how they acquire them speaks volumes about what it takes to play the position effectively.
Assuming Bulaga has no trouble making the transition from the right to the left side — a reasonable assumption since he played left tackle at Iowa, is one of the NFL’s better right tackles and appears to be fully recovered from last season’s hip injury — a staggering number of the projected starters at left tackle in the NFL this coming season were first- or second-round picks.
Of the 32 teams, 20 are expected to start first-round draft picks at left tackle. Seven more second-rounders are projected to start, a good indicator it takes a certain level of size and athletic ability to play the position.
Those numbers don’t include this year’s rookie class. NFL teams used five first-round picks on tackles, including four of the first 11 selections, yet none is projected to start at left tackle. Most will start on the right side and gravitate to the left side.
Of the 27 first- and second-round starters at left tackle,
25 were drafted by the team on which they’re currently playing. The only exceptions are St. Louis’ Jake Long, who just switched teams in free agency, and Baltimore’s Bryant McKinnie, who wore out his welcome in Minnesota. That shows how much value teams place on left tackle. When you get a good one, you keep him.
Among the five starters who weren’t first- or second-round picks, one (Oakland’s Jared
Veldheer) was taken in the third round, one (Chicago’s Jermon Bushrod) in the fourth, one (San Diego’s King Dunlap) in the seventh and two (Philadelphia’s Jason Peters and Tampa Bay’s Donald Penn) went undrafted. Bushrod, Peters and Penn have been to Pro Bowls, though none is with the team that originally drafted or signed him — an indication that trying to develop a left tackle is a long shot for any franchise.
Of course, there is no guarantee drafting a left tackle in the first round will be a success. St. Louis took Jason Smith with the second overall pick in 2009 and he’s now a backup guard in New Orleans.
Still, innate talent is a virtual requirement at left tackle, a demanding position that requires height, bulk and quick feet. It’s very hard to excel at the position without all three because teams usually put their best pass-rushers on the quarterback’s blind side.
Speaking of quarterbacks, it is the only position in the league comparable to left tackle in terms of where the starters come from. This season, 24 of the 32 projected starters were first-round picks and three more were taken in the second round. Among the rest, two (Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Houston’s Matt Schaub) were taken in the third round, one (New England’s Tom Brady) in the sixth, one (Oakland’s Matt Flynn) in the seventh and one (Dallas’ Tony Romo) went undrafted.
Clearly, quarterback is a position where a player struggles to succeed if he is deficient in God-given talent. The men who protect their backsides can’t be deficient either, which is why Bulaga is now a left tackle.