Last season, the Achilles heal for the Browns’ offense was the lack of depth with the offensive line.
To say that the Browns have one of the best offensive line groups in the NFL is a correct assessment. That is, as long as the starters are healthy.
And so far into the 2022 season, that statement is a long way from reality.
The problems for 2022 actually began last year.
First, swing tackle Chris Hubbard suffered a triceps muscle injury which placed him on IR after having surgery. He was the Browns best offensive line depth. Then RT Jack Conklin tore his patellar tendon against Baltimore in Week 12. Although assumed that he would be ready for the opening game against Carolina, the rehab has been slower than expected and he was inactive. Hubbard wasn’t ready to play either.
In the preseason opener this year, starting center Nick Harris sustained a knee injury which placed him on season-ending IR. Less than a week later, backup center Dawson Deaton had a similar injury which also landed him on IR.
So the injuries and issues that plagued this revolving door we call the offensive line has continued to follow the roster into 2022.
GM Andrew Berry looked at Hubbard as experienced material and perhaps could play a key backup role and swing tackle. He was subsequently signed to a one-year deal this off-season.
With Conklin still not ready as well as Hubbard leading up to the Carolina game, what were the options for OL coach Bill Callahan?
His decision was second year man James Hudson.
The guard and center positions have depth.
But the tackle position? If you add Conklin and Hubbard into the equation, the position is pretty good. But without them, there are issues and concerns. And it is not like Berry drafted a guy in this year’s draft as depth.
Guard Hjalte Froholdt has only played guard and center. Guard/center Michael Dunn has played some tackle in high school but is listed as the backup center. The team just signed veteran journeyman Joe Haeg as a backup tackle, but he has had only seven days with his new club.
And then there is 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.
Hudson (6’-4”, 302 pounds) was the choice for Berry of what young buck to bring into the fold to help solidify the depth issue.
He was taken in the fourth-round of the 2021 draft out of Cincinnati. He had a decent training camp and made the final cut.
The Browns needed Hudson. They need a quality swing tackle. And Berry knew of Hubbard’s status of maybe not being ready for training camp much less the season opener.
The short-term answer is Hudson. He has been groomed for the swing tackle position, but he will also become the answer when Conklin’s three-year deal is up after the 2023 season. Perhaps a much younger and cheaper version will already be seasoned by then.
Hudson grew 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.
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 to have a meeting with Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, and in the end it was decided that Hudson should find 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. He transferred to the Cincinnati Bearcats, but was forced to sit out almost an entire season after the denial of his hardship waiver.
Harbaugh was quoted in an ESPNU interview:
“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.’”
With Michigan in his rear view mirror, the Bearcats transitioned Hudson to the offensive line.
Hudson started for Cincinnati at left tackle in 2020 and was an instant star. He possessed a skill set that came from a defensive lineman’s mindset that has 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 his 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 am improved squad which went 9-1-0 and had their sights on that fourth playoff spot. He was selected to play in the prestigious Senior Bowl.
Cleveland Browns a dream come true
Hudson’s father was a lifelong Browns fan. How wonderful is that for the newest Brown?
He 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.’”
"You ready to be a Brown?"@Cinco_Cinco3 | #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/BWF88JuhpZ— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) May 1, 2021
On May 1, Cleveland signed him 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 do the Browns have 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 projected this season as a swing tackle.
Last year he was inserted at both tackle and guard and had lots of issues. He was a rookie trying to learn the pro game and at times appeared out of place.
His overall place with the Browns, however, will ultimately become his future standing as a starting tackle that will bring another quality player into the fold once he gets experience at the position.
Hudson started at right tackle against the Panthers in the opening game and played well. He had only one penalty all game - a holding call - and did not allow any sacks.
And until Conklin can return, he is the Browns’ choice.