GREEN BAY, Wis. – If Bryan Bulaga signs a contract worth $10 million per season, $12 million per season or even more, it will be almost impossible to fault general manager Brian Gutekunst from moving on from the Green Bay Packers’ longtime starting right tackle.
However, replacing Bulaga with Rick Wagner can’t possibly be viewed as an upgrade from a pure performance perspective.
Wagner, who played at Wisconsin and started his career in Baltimore, signed a five-year, $47.5 million contract with Detroit in 2017 but was released last week. It wasn’t as if the Lions needed the cap space; they’re about $48 million beneath the cap. Rather, it was clear the signing was a wild swing and a miss. In 2017, 57 offensive tackles played at least 50 percent of the passing-game snaps. Of that group, Wagner finished 29th in ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-protection metric, which measures sacks, hits and hurries allowed per pass-rushing snap. In 2018, Wagner ranked 42nd out of 58. In 2019, he ranked 42nd out of 57.
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Here are the concerns.
Performance: In 2019, Wagner was the sixth-worst offensive tackle in the NFL (minimum 700 snaps) with a blown-block rate of 4.0 percent on runs and passes, according to Sports Info Solutions. On running plays, Wagner gave up five stuffs, defined as a running play that’s stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. His stuff rate of 1.8 percent was the second-worst among offensive tackles, according to SIS. For comparison, Bulaga had a bad-block rate of 2.3 percent and allowed just one stuff for a stuff rate of 0.3 percent.
Injury history: Everyone knows Bulaga’s injury history, with trips to injured reserve in 2012 (hip), 2013 (knee) and 2017 (knee). Wagner, however, hasn’t exactly been a picture of health. In three seasons with the Lions, he missed three games in 2017 (ankle), one game in 2018 (concussion) and four games in 2019 (three with a knee, one with a concussion). He also missed the end of the 2014 season with a Lisfranc foot injury.
Age: Wagner is 30 – about six months younger than Bulaga. Perhaps age and injury have added up. According to SIS, he had 29 blown blocks last season. That’s more than in 2017 (15) and 2018 (10) combined.
Wagner at least provides some insurance at right tackle, something that shouldn’t be overlooked. His presence takes the pressure off Gutekunst to use a premium draft pick on an offensive tackle. With an excellent group of offensive tackles in the draft, Gutekunst could go that route, anyway, but he could use his early picks to fill more immediate needs.
Then again, re-signing Jared Veldheer could have done the same. Veldheer was fabulous in replacing Bulaga at Detroit (concussion) and in the playoff game against Seattle (illness). He didn’t allow a single pressure in the passing game in either game and didn’t have a blown block vs. the run in the regular-season game. The Packers were interested in retaining Veldheer but they couldn’t come to terms and the team quickly moved on. Wagner is younger (Veldheer will turn 33 in June), and Veldheer briefly retired last offseason because, as he said at the time, his left hip “was in pretty bad shape.”
Right tackle is practically as important as left tackle in today’s NFL. Just look at the NFC North, where the right tackle has to face Chicago’s Khalil Mack and Minnesota’s Danielle Hunter. Also on the docket as primary left-side rushers are New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan (15.5 sacks), Jacksonville’s Josh Allen (10.5 sacks) and San Francisco’s Arik Armstead (10 sacks). Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett, the league’s reigning champion with 19.5 sacks, rushed from the left 43 percent of the time. Barrett, Jordan and Hunter finished in the top four in sacks. To be sure, opening the vault for Bulaga would have been a huge gamble. But going with Wagner is a gamble, too. With his so-so track record, the guess is Wagner is an answer but not the answer.