Rodney Hudson knows what it’s like to suffer a serious injury, work your way through the self-doubt and survive to come out clean on the other side.
In many ways, his performance this season offered proof that Hudson, a fourth-year center, is finally back to being the player he was, physically, before breaking his left leg in the third game of the 2012 season.
“Yeah, I feel like I played better this year, no doubt,” said Hudson, a second-round pick in 2011. “That’s what you always want to do — continue to play better every year.”
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Hudson graded out as one of the league’s top centers in 2014, according to Pro Football Focus. In 16 games, his grade of plus-13.0 ranked third in the entire league among eligible players at his position, behind two Pro Bowlers in the Jets’ Nick Mangold (22.6) and the Cowboys’ Travis Frederick (19.8) and ahead of two more in the Steelers’ Maurkice Pouncey (9.8) and the Eagles’ Jason Kelce (7.5).
It was, to be sure, a better overall season than the one Hudson posted the previous year , his first back after the injury. Hudson was solid enough, posting a PFF grade of 4.4 in 15 games, which ranked 17th among 35 qualifying centers.
But his blocks the previous season sometimes lacked the efficiency he occasionally flashed in 2014 , particularly in space, and Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Hudson has also made strides, mentally.
“I thought he did a good job last year, but he’s doing a good job,” Reid said during the 2014 season. “I think the place where he’s maybe taken a step is that he understands all the schemes now. He’s had a year to play in it versus all the different looks. So, he doesn’t have to sweat that part. If he can think just an inch less, you play an inch faster. That’s what he’s done so far.”
And though the Chiefs often struggled to pick up delayed blitzes and stunts this season, Reid said that’s a burden that falls on everybody — the coaches, quarterback and the line — and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson regularly praised the typically soft-spoken Hudson’s communication skills up front.
“I say it every week or every couple of weeks, everything starts up front with Rodney and the communication,” Pederson said during the season.
In sum, Hudson was easily the most effective starter on the Chiefs’ offensive line, and really, he could not have picked a better time to have a career year. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, and with the Chiefs expected to put a franchise tag on star outside linebacker Justin Houston, that will prohibit them from using any tag on Hudson.
This is where Hudson’s season, in comparison to the Pro Bowlers listed above — all of whom make north of $6 million a year — will make a difference, as he is expected to initially ask for a deal that, at the very least, will top the highest-paid non-Pro Bowl center (Buffalo’s Eric Wood) on a per-year basis.
Wood’s deal, signed in 2013, averages out to roughly $6.3 million a season. Considering Hudson’s age (he turns 26 this year) and the fact he is clearly the best young center on the market this year — the next closest is the Saints’ Brian De la Puente, who turns 30 this year and whose PFF grade is a third of Hudson’s (4.3) — he could easily ask for north of $7 million a season at the outset of free-agency.
Even though the first year of free-agent deals are often team-friendly — players are normally paid something close to the league minimum in base salary that year, leading to a lower cap number — that number could still be a tad too high for the Chiefs, who are currently right at the 2015 projected cap number of $142 million and will need to make some fairly significant moves to create enough room to accommodate Houston’s franchise tag number (which will likely be around $13 million) and a rookie pool of $5 million to $6 million. Even more, by the way, will need to be carved out if they hope to make a splash in free-agency.
If the price tag proves to be too rich, the Chiefs could turn to the draft, free-agency or someone already on the roster — like young center Eric Kush, who was taken in the sixth round in 2013 and has spent the last two years learning the offense — to replace Hudson, who wants to get stronger and play with more power at the point of attack in the future.
“I’m only 25, I’m still young,” said the 6-foot-2 Hudson, who added that he played at 305 pounds this year. “I think that’s always an area you can continue to work on … there’s good players in this league, so you win some, you lose some. You work to win more than you lose, but you want to win them all. I’m gonna continue to work, continue to grow as a player.”
Hudson, however, said his preference would be to do so in Kansas City, where he’s already completed his comeback in major way but hasn’t yet reached his ceiling.
“Yeah, no doubt — I like it here,” Hudson said after the season, when asked if he wants to return. “I’ve been here for four years, I’ve had a great time here so far ... and hopefully I’ll be back.”
Chiefs’ pending unrestricted free agents
▪ OLB Justin Houston, 26: Seems destined for the franchise tag coming off a career year.
▪ C Rodney Hudson, 25: Has bounced back nicely from a broken leg, but will the Chiefs pay him?
▪ S Ron Parker, 27: Was much better at safety than cornerback, is looking for his first real payday.
▪ WR Jason Avant, 31: Veteran is a good influence in the locker room, but will the Chiefs try to upgrade?
▪ S Kurt Coleman, 26: Had a very nice season as the fourth safety in defensive subpackages, but wants to be a starter.
▪ RT Ryan Harris, 29: Stepped in at right tackle after Donald Stephenson's suspension and was adequate, but the Chiefs might want more from this spot.
▪ LB Josh Mauga, 27: Filled in admirably for Derrick Johnson but the Chiefs' run defense needs to be better in 2015.
▪ CB Chris Owens, 28: Was never the same after a knee injury in week five, but as his best gave the defense some much-needed attitude.
▪ DE Kevin Vickerson, 32: Brought some girth and attitude to the Chiefs' defensive front after Mike DeVito's injury; Still believes he has more left in the tank.
▪ RB Joe McKnight, 26: Promising season was cut short by an Achilles injury; is a classic back for the West Coast offense.
▪ LS Thomas Gafford, 32: Chiefs have signed two long snappers to reserve-future deals, so could be on the way out.
▪ LG Jeff Linkenbach, 27: Stepped in at left guard for Mike McGlynn late in the season but the Chiefs will try to upgrade the interior of their line.
▪ LG Mike McGlynn, 29: Brought some toughness and a veteran presence to the line but struggled all season as the starting left guard, some of which coach Andy Reid attributed to injuries.