GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers don’t know if Jahri Evans wants to play anymore, and they can’t know if Bryan Bulaga will be able to play anymore -- at least at the level they would expect from a high-priced, starting right tackle.
Even if Evans doesn’t retire, indications are the Packers likely will move on from the 34-year-old right guard to get younger.
As for Bulaga, while the recovery from the second ACL reconstruction of his career apparently is on schedule, there’s the issue of whether the Packers want to spend $6.75 million in cash and use $7,903,125 in salary-cap space on a player with an injury history.
It's why the right side of the Packers’ offensive line could look much different this season.
They have a ready-made replacement for Evans, who played the first 912 offensive snaps of the season before he sat out the final two games because of a knee injury: Justin McCray, who played well in a jack-of-all trades role last season but could perform even better if allowed to focus primarily on right guard.
The Packers would have to project more at right tackle if they were to move on from Bulaga. A pair of third-year pros, Jason Spriggs and Kyle Murphy, likely would get the first chance at the job, but both finished last season on injured reserve -- Spriggs because of a dislocated knee cap and Murphy because of a broken foot.
“We had some injuries there last year, and we had some guys that got a lot of experience and fought through a lot of adversity, which only makes us stronger,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said last week at the NFL annual meetings in Orlando, Florida. “Now, we’ve got to get healthy on that side, but I think we have a number of guys that are itching for their opportunity, and I’m sure there will be some more competition as we get to the end of July and August.”
Gutekunst was noncommittal at best when asked directly about Bulaga.
“Whenever players are injured, it’s tough as personnel guys who are not 100 percent sure of when they’re coming back,” Gutekunst said. “But I know that he’s been working exceptionally hard. We’ve got a lot of faith that he’s going to come back sooner rather than later, and obviously when Bryan is in there, Bryan is a good player. We’re hoping everything goes well through the rehab process and we get him back as soon as we can.”
The Packers already made one salary-cap-related cut this offseason when they moved on from receiver Jordy Nelson. They could pick up another $4,703,125 if they dumped Bulaga; the cap savings would jump to $6,303,125 if they made him a post-June 1 cut. Teams no longer have to wait until that date to gain the extra savings; they could release him at any time but designate it as a post-June 1 move for cap purposes.
For his part, Bulaga said last month on ESPN Milwaukee radio that he had received no indication from the Packers that they might let him go. Complicating the matter is when Bulaga was injured. He tore his ACL on Nov. 6, which could make it more difficult for him to be ready for the season opener. His previous ACL injury occurred during the 2013 training camp, which allowed him to return for the 2014 season opener.
“All feedback I’ve been given is [positive],” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last week when asked about Bulaga. “He’s in Florida training, he’s going through his rehab program. But just talking to [team physician] Dr. [Pat] McKenzie, it’s probably been a good week or two now and he feels that Bryan is right on course.”
McCray started eight games at three different positions (five at right tackle, two at left guard and one at right guard) but is probably best suited to play right guard.
“I think he can develop into [a full-time starter],” McCarthy said. “When you look at McCray and what he’s had to do, as far as he’s playing three positions every day in practice because he has to take his snaps as the third center and an ability to play guard. Because the center/guard, there’s so much more communication. And then when you kick out to tackle, it’s a whole different world from a footwork and fundamental standpoint. Really, what he did last year is pretty special.”
Murphy could also be a multi-positional player, although he’s probably best suited to play right tackle.
“The tackle position, you have Bryan and Jason there,” McCarthy said. “Kyle Murphy, he’s been in there working out, so we’ll see where he’s at. It’s going to be a wide-open competition. I think you have to really feel good about what Justin has done, and so I would have to say it’s wide open.”