GREEN BAY – Whether his football career continues in Green Bay or not, Bryan Bulaga is proud of his 10th NFL season in 2019, and deservedly so.
The veteran right tackle is a pending unrestricted free agent for the second time in his career, and he doesn't know where he'll be playing in 2020, or for how much longer.
But he does know he wants to play, and this past season has a lot to do with that desire.
"I still love playing," Bulaga said during locker clean-out last week, a day after the Packers' season ended one win shy of the Super Bowl. "There's nothing better than playing in NFC Championship games. There's nothing better than that.
"I understand we didn't win, but there's nothing better than the competition and being around guys you love and going through these long days with. That's what you love about this, and that for me is still very strong."
The pride he takes in the season is both collective and individual. With this team, it was gratifying to sweep the NFC North, win the division, and be one of the league's last four standing when many pundits pegged the Packers to be rebuilding under a new head coach.
Green Bay Packers players packed up their belongings as the 2019 football season came to an end.
For him personally, he called it "very rewarding" to start all 16 regular-season games for just the second time in his career, and to make the transition to a new offense successfully as the longest-tenured lineman on the team.
Having gone through two ACL surgeries on his knees in his career, Bulaga credited the coaching staff's health maintenance schedule for him with keeping him fresh for game days. He said his knees actually feel better than ever, and even when he exited the first San Francisco game in the first quarter with a knee injury, he still was able to suit up the following week.
He would have started all 18 games, including the postseason, if not for waking up the morning of the Seattle playoff game having caught the stomach virus that had infected the locker room. He tried to warm up for the game but had to take himself out.
The first-round draft pick from 2010, who remains the youngest player ever to start a Super Bowl, is now at 124 career starts (111 regular season, 13 postseason) and feels he's still going strong. He didn't offer where this season ranks for him in terms of his quality of play, but several teammates and coaches commented during the season they thought it was one of his best, if not the best, even in a new scheme.
The gauntlet of pass rushers Bulaga faced, particularly early in the season (Chicago's Khalil Mack, Minnesota's Danielle Hunter, Denver's Von Miller, and so on) when the offense was trying to find its footing, was a huge challenge, and he met it with the same stoic confidence and businesslike preparation that has defined his career.
"I think a lot of people had questions about myself and (at) 30 years old, will I be able to do X, Y and Z?" he said. "Will I be able to play? It's not really me proving anything to anybody, but it is good to go out there and play at a high level.
"It's not always easy learning something brand new, and the expectation for guys that have been around here for a long time is to play really good football. That's tough, and something I've been really happy about, and learned. Not that I didn't think I could do it … but change happens, and how do you adapt to it and make the most of it."
He remained a leader in the offensive line room, aided free agent Billy Turner's adjustment to being the new right guard next to him, and is held in high esteem by fellow bookend tackle David Bakhtiari and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who have spoken often about their appreciation for both his play and his friendship.
Those longtime teammates certainly want him back, and they'll be waiting to see how the business end sorts itself out. General Manager Brian Gutekunst last week praised what Bulaga as an established veteran presence has meant to the team both on and off the field, and he also noted the durability he showed in his 10th season.
The last time Bulaga was a free agent, following the 2014 season, his re-signing went down to the wire. The legal tampering period had begun before free agency officially started, both sides got a gauge of the market for his services, and they agreed to a deal just as the opening bell rang.
How the process goes this time is anyone's guess. If Bulaga does not come back, the Packers primary options would be to move Turner to right tackle and plug in a new guard, sign a free agent, or draft a long-term replacement with presumably a high pick. The latter two options would take potential resources away from addressing other areas of the team, but that's the puzzle Gutekunst and the personnel department will be figuring out in the coming months.
No matter what transpires, Bulaga appreciates everything Green Bay has meant to his life and career.
"I've grown up here," he said. "I got married when I was a Packer, bought my first house I still live in, two kids, a lot of ups and downs that my wife and I have grown from personally, professionally. We've become adults here, technically.
"I can't predict what's going to go down. I don't know what their plans are and I know my plan is to continue to play. I know I can still contribute at a high level and play really good football. I think I showed I can still do that this year. We'll see what happens."