Bryan Bulaga in Packers' 2018 plans, but pay-cut issue lingers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Had the Green Bay Packers drafted a tackle in the first few rounds of the NFL draft, then perhaps Bryan Bulaga's future would be in question.

But after general manager Brian Gutekunst waited until the fifth round to take an offensive lineman -- and it was one the Packers see as a guard -- he essentially gave assurances that Bulaga will be on the roster whenever he's cleared to return from the reconstruction of his torn ACL.

Bulaga, 29, blew out his right knee on Nov. 6 against the Lions.

"He's doing excellent; he's way ahead of schedule," Gutekunst said at the conclusion of the draft. "Those are big injuries. He's fought through those things before, we expect him to do that again. But yeah, we expect him to be a part of our team."

Bulaga, a 2010 first-round pick, suffered the same injury in his left knee in 2013, when he missed the entire season. That injury occurred in training camp, which gave him plenty of time to return for the start of 2014.

The timing of this injury makes it far less likely he could be ready for the Sept. 9 opener against the Bears. There's a good chance he could start training camp -- and possibly the season -- on the physically unable to perform list.

"I get what you're thinking on the timetable," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Definitely, early in training camp will be a huge indicator. But all I can tell you is he's ahead of schedule based off of what I've seen with the communication with the medical staff."

Questions about Bulaga's future not only center on his age and injury history but also his contract. He has two years remaining on a five-year, $33.75 million deal. That includes $6.75 million in salary and bonuses in each of the next two seasons. Bulaga's salary-cap number of $7,903,125 ranks eighth-highest on the team for 2018.

Bulaga seemed like one of the Packers' most likely salary-cap casualties.

To this point, Bulaga's deal has not been restructured, although that remains a possibility. If he refused a pay cut, the Packers almost certainly will have to release him. Otherwise, it would send a message to the locker room that there are no consequences for such a refusal.

Bulaga said this offseason in an interview with ESPN Milwaukee that he wasn't worried about getting released or having to take a pay cut.

When healthy, Bulaga should be considered a top-10 right tackle in the league, but he has missed 39 games over the past six seasons. The Packers don't have a surefire replacement for him. In fact, the top two candidates both finished last season on injured reserve -- Jason Spriggs because of a knee injury and Kyle Murphy with a broken foot. Justin McCray also filled in at right tackle, but the Packers would rather play him at guard. That's also where the Packers project fifth-round pick Cole Madison, who played right tackle at Washington State.

"We see him playing inside," Packers director of college scouting Jon-Eric Sullivan said after they picked Madison. "We think he has some versatility, but if you pin me down, he's probably going to start [out] at guard."