GREEN BAY – The challenge doesn’t get much larger for an NFL right tackle than the scenario Bryan Bulaga faced to start the 2019 season.
In consecutive weeks, the Packers’ 10th-year veteran was tasked with containing a pair of All-Pro edge rushers in Chicago’s Khalil Mack and Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter, often in one-on-one situations.
As Bulaga has done throughout most of his career in Green Bay, the 6-foot-5, 314-pound tackle held his ground against two of the league’s finest and didn’t concede a sack. No big deal.
Center Corey Linsley has grown accustomed to seeing these type of quiet, understated performances in key moments from Bulaga, the longest-tenured veteran on the offensive side of the ball outside of only quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
As a rookie in 2014, Linsley remembers being in awe of Bulaga during the first month of that season. Week after week, Bulaga was matched against a top defensive end, and more often than not, he walked off the field victorious in his assignment.
“You’re like ‘Wow, that guy’s a hell of a player,’” Linsley said. “You’re kind of sitting there like, ‘Why doesn’t this guy have more national recognition?’ But it’s kind of the game we play and it’s kind of the stuff that happens. It is what it is. And I know he takes it in stride and does whatever he can the best way he can.”
It’s a tune the Packers’ offensive line room has been singing for several years now for the 30-year-old tackle, who has started 97 of the 101 regular-season games he’s played since Green Bay drafted him in the first round out of Iowa in 2010.
At 21, Bulaga remains the youngest player to ever start a Super Bowl and one of four players in the locker room who remain from the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV championship team.
Yet, over the past decade, much of the narrative built around Bulaga’s story has centered on injuries, namely the torn anterior cruciate ligaments he suffered in 2013 and 2017.
In Linsley’s mind, that’s unfortunate and unjust. Those who focus on that part of Bulaga’s journey have missed the real story – his stability at right tackle, the young offensive linemen he’s helped groom and the work he’s put in behind closed doors to become a reliable pillar on the offensive line.
That’s not to mention the countless hours Bulaga invested into his rehab to return to the playing field for last year’s home opener against the Chicago Bears, less than 10 months after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery.
“He’s a warrior,” Rodgers said. “He's been on my right side for so many years now. … He understands his strengths really well. He understands the offense exceptionally. He's just a heady player who's so smart and tough and reliable when he's out there playing tackle for us.”
Bulaga doesn’t make a big deal about stonewalling two of the NFL’s elite rushers to begin his 10th season. Yet, if there is one thing he can attribute his strong start to, it’s probably having the benefit of a full offseason to prepare rather than racing to get back in time for last year’s opener.
Back then, Bulaga didn’t start taking 11-on-11 reps until near the end of training camp, with his 12 snaps in Green Bay’s preseason finale against Kansas City serving as the only real one-on-one work he received prior to the start of the season.
This summer was a complete 180. Bulaga was a healthy participant throughout training camp, including during the team’s joint practices against J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and the Houston Texans in early August.
“I took this year more reps in that first 1½ weeks than I did all of training camp last year,” Bulaga said. “To have that inter-squad practice with the Texans, that’s all really good stuff to get those reps and see live movements, where what was (last year), kind of jumping in right at the end of Week 3 of preseason and then playing a couple snaps in Preseason 4.
“You try to get as ready as you can but there’s still something to say all the reps you get throughout the week in training camp definitely helped.”
Bulaga, head athletic trainer Bryan Engel and offensive line coach Adam Stenavich had a plan this summer to give Bulaga a few occasional rest days here and there in order to keep the veteran tackle healthy and fresh.
A former assistant in San Francisco, Stenavich compared the approach to how the 49ers handled All-Pro tackle Joe Staley, a veteran of 176 NFL games who has seen it all in this league.
“Just an older veteran guy, he knows what to do, (so) give him his reps but don’t overwork him,” said Stenavich last month. “(Bulaga) understands football really well so it’s not like he needs a lot of mental. It’s just a matter of making sure his footwork’s good. And he’s comfortable with everything, but you really don’t have to overwork him because of his experience.”
And as a veteran, Bulaga isn’t throwing any bouquets for himself over his performances against Mack and Hunter. Instead, he points to his next challenging assignment this Sunday against Denver’s Von Miller, the third straight All-Pro edge rusher Bulaga will face.
The right tackle isn’t concerned about notoriety or accolades, though Linsley believes “Bryan deserves to be in that conversation” as the game’s best right tackle.
From Bulaga’s perspective, he’s healthy, available and playing at a high level. Ten years in, that’s all he could ask for.
“At the end of the day, it’s about being ready to play on Sunday and being 100-percent ready to go,” Bulaga said. “I feel like, week-to-week, I’m there on Sundays ready to do that.”