Right tackle Bryan Bulaga’s season is over, and the Green Bay Packers are one more offensive line injury away from having to play an undrafted rookie free agent.
Bulaga became on Monday the Packers’ fifth significant contributor to land on season-ending injured reserve this year, joining inside linebackers Desmond Bishop (hamstring) and D.J. Smith (knee), outside linebacker Nick Perry (wrist) and running back Brandon Saine (knee). Running back Cedric Benson is on IR but has been designated for potential return next month.
Bulaga suffered a dislocated hip against Arizona on Nov. 4, and the team’s medical staff – in conjunction with specialists – determined it was too risky for Bulaga to return. According to coach Mike McCarthy, who called the injury “significant,” Bulaga was less than thrilled with the team’s decision.
“It’s something that there’s a lot of conversation about the timeline of a possible return. The more people we talked to, we felt it was best obviously to put him on IR. His long-term health is always at the forefront of these decisions,” McCarthy said.
“If you ask Bryan … you walk in there Monday morning, he’s out there working out, no crutches, not saying nice things about the doctors, which is nice to hear. (He's saying) he wants to play and he’s going to be fine. He did some things in the SwimEx (therapy pool) as far as the rehab. But you can’t deny what’s on the scan. This is in his best interest to go this path. We feel confident about his future.”
McCarthy said the early diagnosis is that Bulaga will not need surgery, although he’ll have a checkup in four weeks, which is when a final decision on surgery will be made.
When Bulaga went out early in the second quarter against the Cardinals, the Packers shifted left guard T.J. Lang to right tackle and brought Evan Dietrich-Smith in off the bench to replace Lang at left guard. Dietrich-Smith had been viewed since training camp as the offensive line of an NBA sixth man, set to be first off the bench regardless of position.
With Dietrich-Smith now in the starting lineup, the only backup offensive linemen currently on the Packers’ 53-man roster are undrafted rookie free agents Don Barclay and Greg Van Roten.
The team’s 2011 first-round draft pick, Derek Sherrod, is on the physically unable to perform list because of the broken leg he suffered last December and practiced on Monday for the first time in almost a year. McCarthy said all Sherrod did Monday was some individual drill work.
The Packers opened Sherrod’s practice window before last Wednesday’s deadline, starting a three-week clock on his practice time. They must decide whether to activate him or place him on season-ending injured reserve by Nov. 28.
In the meantime, if something happens to another starter, Barclay or Van Roten would be pressed into service.
“Green Bay always seems to find one or two of those free-agent guys that maybe played tackle in college, they move them around, put them at center or guard or whatever. These guys have come in and done a nice job of fitting in with us and playing different positions,” right guard Josh Sitton said Monday. “They’ve grown over the course of the year.
“I knew right away (that) Donny was going to be that guy, that free-agent guy that makes the team. I kind of saw that right away in training camp. And with Van Roten, it kind of came on as the weeks progressed. They’re both good players, both real smart. We would feel confident having them out there.”
Barclay was a three-year starter at left tackle at West Virginia and played in a school record-tying 52 games in four years for the Mountaineers. He moved around in training camp along the line but is now the top backup at right tackle, according to Dietrich-Smith. Barclay said he’s been taking snaps at right tackle and both guard spots over the past six weeks, with a few additional snaps at right tackle on Monday.
“You’ve always got to be ready, and that’s kind of the position I’ve been in the first nine weeks. You’re just waiting on a chance,” Barclay said. “It’s sad to hear that about Bryan. He’s a close friend of mine; we’ve gotten close as the time’s gone on. But he understands stuff like that happens and I’ve just got to be ready.
“With nine weeks gone by, every day you start learning a little bit more about the offense. Now I feel like I know a lot and I’m real confident and feel like I could step in and play a couple of positions."
Van Roten, who was a two-time first-team all-Ivy League selection at the University of Pennsylvania, was cut on the final roster reduction at the end of training camp but was re-signed to the practice squad. He was promoted to the 53-man roster last month. He would seem to be the primary backup at the center and guard spots at this point.
“You’re always kind of on call and ready to go. When Bryan went down, it was like, ‘The good life’s over. You’re going to have to get ready to play,’” Van Roten said. “I don’t think it changes as far as preparation. You always have to be ready to go.
“I’ve been at center mostly, so I’m going to stay there, and I’ll be both guard spots and we’ll kind of see. Wherever they need to plug me in, I’m sure I can perform.”
That’s apparently how the team feels about both youngsters, too. There were no indications Monday evening that the team, which kept only seven linemen on the 53-man roster coming out of training camp, intended to add a veteran free agent off the street.
“I know one thing: They’ve gotten a lot of better just practicing,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said of Barclay and Van Roten. “From when they first got here to now, it’s a big difference. The guys can play. Either one of them can go out there on Sunday and compete at a high level and be productive. They’re good linemen. When their number’s called, I’m sure they’ll be able to answer the bell.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 540 ESPN on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.