Last season, the Achilles heel for the Browns’ offense was the lack of depth with the offensive line.
Which was very odd. GM Andrew Berry did not build most of the offensive line, but he completed it. When the youngest general manager in the NFL was hired, he came to the conclusion that the core of the line was in great shape with J.C. Tretter at center, Joel Bitonio securing the left guard spot, and a competition for the right guard position between incumbent Wyatt Teller and the newly-drafted Drew Forbes.
But the tackles? Geez.
Chris Hubbard at right tackle was Jekyll and Hyde each week where he would have a great game at run blocking and be horrible with pass protection. The next game, it would be the opposite.
At left tackle, Greg Robinson was working on his reputation of being the second player taken in the first-round of the 2014 NFL draft. And he played like he should be accepted as first-round talent and paid as such. But each year in the league he had shown up for training camp overweight and his efforts on the edge proved to be inefficient to where he was considered a liability.
Berry had a decision to make regarding Robinson, and the big man made it easy. In February of 2020, Robinson was arrested in Texas for possession of 156.9 pounds of marijuana brought in from Mexico. In an Uber. Robinson’s defense was it was the Uber driver’s weed and not his. That case is still pending, but Berry took swift action and calls from Robinson’s agent went unreturned.
Meanwhile, it was assumed that Hubbard would also be cut. Cleveland had Kendall Lamm, Alex Taylor and Drake Dorbeck on the roster as tackle backups and surely one of them could win the right tackle slot. Plus, the loser of the Forbes-Teller battle might slid outside. And there were others such as guards Malcolm Pridgeon, Willie Wright and Colby Gossett who had played some tackle in college despite being more inside guys at the pro level.
Berry looked at Hubbard, who was currently on a five-year $37.5 million contract, as experienced NFL material and perhaps could play a key backup role and swing tackle. He was subsequently signed to a restructured two-year deal for $2.5 million a season (instead of $6.15 million annually).
Then Berry inked Tennessee Titans right tackle Jack Conklin to a monster three-year $42 million contract. Next, the Browns owned the 10th slot in the 2020 NFL draft. Three of the best offensive tackles were sitting there on the board. Berry took Jedrick Wills, Jr. out of Alabama who would be shifted him from right tackle to left tackle.
And so, the 2020 starting lineup was complete; and ample backups were in training camp to compete for playing time and a rise on the depth chart.
Not the plan
But injuries and the pandemic killed Berry’s blueprint. And the offense only follows the way the offensive line produces. Hubbard, Teller and Conklin were placed on the reserve/COVID list at separate intervals.
Tretter had a knee issue. Hubbard an ankle. Conklin was banged up with ankle and finger injuries. Wills injured his shin. A calf concern for Teller. Then his ankle. Bitonio an elbow. Hubbard dislocated his knee cap. Nick Harris a knee issue. Kendall Lamm and Wills each had an illness.
During these injury battles, players that stepped in for line coach Bill Callahan including Harris, Hubbard, Lamm, Blake Hance and Michael Dunn. At different intervals, Taylor, Javon Patterson and Cordel Iwuagwu were activated from the practice squad to the active roster as primary backups.
Which brings us to 2021.
New plan: provide more depth with the offensive line, and preferably players that have played multiple positions-of-need.
Forbes and Gossett have returned from their opt-outs. Dunn, Taylor, Iwuagwu and Hance were re-signed. Teller completely healed. Greg Senat was signed in free agency as this year’s probable swing tackle. Hubbard remains a question mark, but would instantly provide quality depth when he returns.
More young blood in-house
The guard and center positions have plenty of depth.
Not that he is going anywhere soon, but starting center Tretter is now 30-years old. Behind him is Harris, who was taken in the fifth-round of the 2020 draft. Behind them is Patterson who is now on his third club but only 24-years old.
Guards Teller (age 26) and Bitonio (29) represent two of the league’s best core players. And there is a bounty of youth behind them with an emphasis on Forbes (24) and Dunn (26) as the primary backups.
But the tackle position?
Senat is just 26-years old - that is true. But he has bounced around to find a roster. The Browns are his fourth franchise (including being with Cleveland before). Taylor is just 24-years old, but has had injury problems. Lamm signed elsewhere in free agency.
And then there is James Hudson.
Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, all anyone could talk about was getting the offensive line more depth. Especially the offensive tackle position. Get a young guy in, let Coach Callahan work his magic on him and develop him to one day become a viable starting option. Or at the very least, a decent swing tackle.
Which plagued the offense last year. Hubbard did an adequate job before he became injured, but Lamm was horrible.
James Hudson (6’-4”, 302 pounds) was the choice for Berry of which young buck to bring into the fold to help solidify the depth issue.
He was taken in the fourth-round of this year’s draft out of Cincinnati. And with the 2021 roster packed with quality players at every position on both sides of the line, it is going to be difficult for a rookie to make this roster regardless of draft status.
But not for Hudson. He is now a Cleveland Brown and on gameday come Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs, he will be on the active roster. It’s guaranteed.
The Browns need James Hudson. They need a quality swing tackle. Going into this year, Berry could have re-signed Lamm but didn’t. And Berry knew of Hubbard’s status of maybe not being ready for training camp much less the season. OT Senat was signed, but hasn’t played any meaningful snaps at all during his three-year career.
The answer is Hudson. He will not only be groomed for the swing tackle position, but will also become the answer when Conklin’s three-year deal is up after the 2022 season. He will be 29-years old then and perhaps a much younger version will already be available by then.
Hudson is an Ohio native having grown up in Toledo. He went to Central Catholic where he played both offense and defense. As a senior defensive lineman, Hudson had 80 total tackles, 34 tackles for loss plus eight sacks. He was named AP First Team All-Ohio and MaxPreps All-Ohio Big School First Team plus the First Team Northwest Ohio All-District. In addition, he was named the All-Three Rivers Athletic Conference Defensive Player-of-the-Year.
There was a line out the door and down the street of colleges who came calling for this ESPN four-star recruit.
Further evidence of why Michigan and Ohio don’t mix
Hudson ultimately chose Michigan, but things just didn’t work out there. He wasn’t getting playing time and was diagnosed with depression-related conditions. Hudson’s mother Glenda drove up to have a meeting with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and in the end it was decided that Hudson should seek other options.
Hudson wanted immediate eligibility so that he could pursue his college career somewhere else. Whether Michigan blocked the appeal to the NCAA is still not known as fact or has become the fabric of that Ohio/Michigan debacle. Hudson transferred to Cincinnati, but was forced to sit out almost an entire season after the denial of his hardship waiver.
Harbaugh was quoted in an ESPNU interview regarding the transfer:
“The other piece that bothers me about it is the youngster that says, ‘This is a mental health issue. I’m suffering from depression.’ Or that’s a reason to get eligible. And once that’s known: ‘Hey, say this or say that’ to get eligible. The problem I see in that is you’re going to have guys that are, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m depressed.’
Say what they’ve got to say. But down the road I don’t see that helping them if it’s not a legitimate thing. But nobody would know. But what are you going to say? Ten years down the road - ‘I just had to say what I had to say?’ And I think you’re putting them in a position that’s unfair, not right. And, as you said, you’re saying it just to say it. And that’s not truthful. That’s not necessarily truthful. It’s not something we should be promoting at the college level. Telling the truth matters. Especially at a college. You can’t have experiments that aren’t truthful. You can’t lie about equations - shouldn’t be lying in football. That’s a message that we should be teaching.”
Glenda Hudson was upset when she heard Jim Harbaugh's comments on mental health today. Her son, James, left Michigan and claims the NCAA is blocking his immediate eligibility at Cincinnati because he never reported issues at Michigan. For the first time, she's speaking out: pic.twitter.com/9nTjTbs8wP— Jordan Strack (@JordanStrack) July 20, 2019
With Michigan in his rear view mirror, at Cincinnati they transitioned Hudson to the offensive line.
Hudson started for the Bearcats at left tackle in 2020 and was an instant star. He possessed a skill set that came from a defensive lineman’s mindset which transcended to the O-Line. And the results have spoken for themselves.
He is quite aggressive with a ton of power. And has a high ceiling.
ProFootballNetwork.com had this to say about Hudson’s college scouting report:
Positives: Michigan transfer who broke into the starting lineup last season and had a tremendous junior campaign. Bends his knees, sets with a wide base, and stays square. Powerful, explosive at the point, and correctly places his hands into defenders. Fluid and smooth getting out to the second level, annihilates linebackers, and works to finish blocks.
Makes good use of angles, possesses terrific hand punch, and easily rides rushers from their angles of attack. Powerful run blocker who regularly turns defenders off the line.
Negatives: Stiff sliding off the edge, and he must improve his blocking ability in motion. Struggles going up against quick, nimble opponents. Lacks great footwork off the edge.
Hudson did not play much while at Michigan as a defender which frustrated him. When he relocated to Cincinnati and they switched him to the offensive line, he won the starting position in his first year of 2020 and started all 11 games. The end result was an outstanding season.
The switch for Hudson was a calling. He allowed zero sacks and only six quarterback pressures. With Cincinnati, he was named First Team All-AAC on an improved squad which went 9-1-0 and had their sights on that elusive fourth playoff spot. He was later selected to play in the prestigious Senior Bowl and had a very good practice week against some of the nation’s premier defensive linemen such as Levi Onwuzurike (second-round), Payton Turner (first-round) and Carlos Boogie Basham (second-round).
Cleveland Browns a dream come true
Hudson’s father James, Jr. is a lifelong Browns fan. How wonderful is that for the household of the newest Brown?
Hudson said this about his draft day experience:
“I instantly looked at my dad. I grew up in a Cleveland Browns household. I’m pretty sure the day that he had me, he was thinking, ‘I hope my son is a Cleveland Brown one day.’ I’m just blessed and I’m very excited. As soon as they told me they were going to pick me I told them ‘you guys are getting the biggest steal of the draft.’”
On May 1, Cleveland signed Hudson to a four-year deal worth $4.16 million with a $677,000 sighing bonus.
“Really excited to get James where we got him,” Browns VP of Player Personnel Glenn Cook said. “I think we went to bed last night hoping that he would be there at this spot.”
So, what are the Browns getting in Hudson?
For starters, a mean dude. Perhaps nasty is a better word.
Hudson is able to get the second level at a hurried pace which allows him to become a valued asset for the Browns and Coach Callahan. He is able to run wide zone schemes and get out in space with screen plays. Hudson gains depth in his kick-step and slides with ease, beating speed rushers to the apex on a consistent basis.
His punch is sudden and unpredictable allowing him to gain inside hand placement. Quick feet and balance allow Hudson to recover quickly; it is difficult to win around him as he is so quick on his feet. Because of this athleticism, he projects as the main swing tackle in the short term.
Against Jacksonville in the preseason opener, the coaching staff started Hudson at left tackle alongside Dunn, with Harris at center. On the rightside, Hubbard was at his familiar right tackle spot with Hance placed at right guard.
In the second series, a completion to Rashard Higgins was negated when Hudson had a false start. This forced the Browns to punt after an incomplete pass. Hudson will certainly learn from his very first NFL penalty. For the game he played 66% of offensive snaps, so he was able to get in some much needed reps.
His overall place with the Browns, however, will ultimately become his future standing as a starting tackle that will bring another quality versatile player into the fold once he gets experience at the position.
The 2021 draft was very deep in offensive line help - especially the tackle position.
Is Hudson the sleeping giant in this talented offensive line class?