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Rodney Hudson Absent, So Justin Pugh May Be Cardinals Center

With one veteran a question mark, another puts off retirement in return

Offensive lineman Justin Pugh gets work at a recent Cardinals' practice.
Offensive lineman Justin Pugh gets work at a recent Cardinals' practice.

Starting center Rodney Hudson is not at Cardinals' mandatory minicamp, and the absence is not excused, coach Kliff Kingsbury said Tuesday as the team opened its last two days of work of the offseason.

Kingsbury declined to get into details about why Hudson was missing, only saying the sides were "working through something."

But he did note that one of the players getting work at center with Hudson gone was veteran left guard Justin Pugh – who not only said he thought a potential position change could extend his career, but also that he nearly retired after the 2021 season.

It was a noteworthy turn of events for the offensive line, which suddenly looks a lot less settled than it appeared.

"I could see myself playing center," Pugh said. "I've capped out money-wise at guard. Why not go out and see if I can play center? In this offseason, with Kyler (Murray), center is a very important position. There are a lot of centers that play older in their years, because physically it's not as demanding. Mentally it's much more intense, and that's where I think I can succeed.

"We'll try it out. We'll see how it goes. If I don't play real well, you'll see me at left guard."

Veteran Sean Harlow brings with him the most Cardinals' experience at center without Hudson, although Harlow's natural position – like Pugh – is guard. The same goes for sixth-round pick Lecitus Smith, who has also been working some at center.

There were reports the Cardinals were considering spending their first-round pick on a center. They have also had in for a visit free agent Billy Price, who played with the Giants last season.

Pugh is close with Hudson, having him at his bachelor party and wedding this offseason. But he said he doesn't talk football with his teammate, and whatever Hudson and the team are discussing now is "above my paygrade."

Pugh made it clear, however, that his decision to nearly retire after last season came from frustration about taking a paycut for the season, and he had already begun to transition to a post-football life when GM Steve Keim reached out about a return.

"I kind of went out on my own terms, but someone has to block Aaron Donald, so they needed to bring me back," Pugh said with a smile.

Pugh said he had a number in mind it would take to get him to play – the Cardinals signed him to a $5.5 million salary for the year – but the sting was real a season ago, when the Cards shaved about $3 million from his compensation.

"All of a sudden, it's 'I'm going to cut your pay,' and I don't care what you do, someone cuts your pay by 33 percent, you're not going to be happy," Pugh said. "Then you factor in how much you love the game, how much you love being around the guys, how much you love to compete, and there is no dollar amount that can fill that gap."

Pugh is in a better place now, noting that he attended a concert with Keim this offseason that had to come after he signed his new deal.

His weight had dwindled to 265 as he got ready for his wedding and began to move to a post-NFL life, but Pugh said he is back to consuming 5,000 smart calories a day to get back to his proper playing weight by training camp.

Now the Cardinals and Pugh will see if he is at left guard or perhaps center, as the Hudson situation plays out.

"Until they can bring someone in who can actually replace me, they'll have to pay me," Pugh said. "That's the business. I proved myself valuable enough last year to come back."

Images from the first day of Cardinals minicamp in 2022

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