Over the course of the season, we lamented the growing possibility that Bryan Bulaga would not return for his senior season, especially once word started circulating that he was a near-lock for first-round status; rumor had it that the Packers had all but guaranteed they'd take him in the first if he were still there.
We've long held that Bulaga was not as good this season as he was in 2008, awards excepted; even given that as a fact, the correct move is for Bulaga to declare for the draft right now.
Here's the deal: after his sophomore season, Bryan Bulaga didn't just look like a first round pick, he looked like a top 5 pick. And he certainly did regress this season; any close, objective observer would agree. But it certainly seems like there was a legitimate and impermanent medical reason for that: the thyroid issue. So while that mean streak that manifested itself as such--
--has yet to reappear, his physical gifts were at least back on display and sharpening as of the Georgia Tech game. Bulaga excels in the run game getting to the next level and taking on linebackers, and he did that ably in the Orange Bowl.
So while there's no more "top 5" talk for Bulaga, the potential's still obviously there, and that is just begging for the attention of a team in the middle of the first round who's looking to upgrade at the tackle position. To get #5 talent for #15-20 money? Yes and please and thank you.
Of course, selfishly, we'd all like Bulaga to come back for his senior year, reestablish his dominance, and then stride triumphantly back into the draft next season to collect an outrageous paycheck. That's an optimistic prpjection, though; college football is a really rough sport, and there's a large amount of players who, regardless of physical ability, don't make it through the season unscathed or as good as before. It happens a lot. And as it stands right now, the one scenario in which Bulaga doesn't get several millions of dollars for playing football is if he returns to Iowa and his senior year is as filled with hardship as this season was.
Compounding that potential for stock devaluation is the "Stankin' Plankton from Yankton," one Riley Reiff. Reiff was pretty inarguably better at left tackle than was Bulaga this season; when Bulaga returned, Reiff quickly found himself starting elsewhere on the line, just to get him on the field more often. So for 2010, who do you suppose gets that coveted LT spot? Because if you immediately assume it's Bulaga, Kyle Calloway and his last-game switch to right guard would like to have a word with you. Getting upstaged at left tackle--even for a potential star like Reiff--would devastate Bulaga's stock as a first-round pick at tackle.
This isn't to say that Bulaga's departure is addition by subtraction or anything; even if Reiff's the better LT, we'd much rather have Bulaga at LT and Reiff at RT than Reiff at LT and "Inexperienced Lineman X" at RT. This is a substantial loss for the line, and someone's going to need to step up in a big way if Iowa's looming spot in 2010's preseason top 10 is to be properly defended.
Still, seriously: go get that NFL money now, Bulaga. It's the right move and you have our tear-stained blessing. We'll always have Eat Bulaga.