I started with a hypothesis. Now, I'm not so sure.
Will be unpopular choice, but #Chiefs could save cap room by letting Rodney Hudson walk. Center is one place you can go cheap.— Matt Conner (@MattConnerSBN) December 29, 2014
The preface here should be familiar to most of you. The Kansas City Chiefs face a number of significant financial decisions for next year's roster. Do they keep Dwayne Bowe? What about Tamba Hali? What do you do about beloved veterans coming off major injuries like Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito? Eric Berry's tragic scenario does carry financial ramifications. Do we even touch that one?
John Dorsey and his staff have certainly been preparing for some time for the major crossroads they find themselves at this offseason And none of this touches the biggest issue of all: finding a way to keep Justin Houston in house for a long time. Given the need to create cap space to make that extension happen (or a number of other moves to plug roster holes), it's natural to look at a budget for line items that are easily trimmed.
Exhibit A: Rodney Hudson
Rodney Hudson is the team's starting center. He has been since the Chiefs starting center since Casey Wiegmann and the team parted ways after the 2011 season. Hudson suffered a serious injury in 2012 that limited him to three starts, but he's returned to start 31 of 32 games over the last two years.
Hudson is also an unrestricted free agent, one of 14 for the Chiefs. In a year where Kansas City faces a number of major decisions, Hudson's is another case that needs to be decided upon. And given his position, I thought it was an easy call.
Why let Hudson walk?
Centers are cheap. They are the least heralded offensive player outside of a fullback, and that's because most teams don't employ a fullback as often as the Chiefs. Many teams, I believed, can use a mid-round pick and find their starting center with no problem. Given the aforementioned money woes, it made sense to believe that Hudson's potential exit could be a good move.
The highest paid center in the game is Alex Mack of the Cleveland Browns with a salary cap hit of $10 million. Mack not only sets the high bar, but it's not even close after him. Ryan Kalil of the Panthers makes $7.3 million, and Jets center Nick Mangold makes $7.2 million. While a few more guys make a few million apiece, it's also easy to find a dozen teams that suit up each week with a starter in the middle making less than $2 million.
If Hudson is on the verge of being paid, which he most definitely is (and which we'll get to in a minute), why not let Hudson walk and make his millions elsewhere? The team has a developmental prospect in Eric Kush. They also have a slew of draft picks in the upcoming draft. Paying Hudson much more than the league average to remain in place seemed more of a luxury in a time when needs should only be considered.
What's the problem then?
Rodney Hudson is the problem. So is the rest of the offensive line.
First of all, Hudson was good last year. Let's change that. Rodney Hudson was very, very good last year. Hudson was never short on promise after being selected by Scott Pioli in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Hudson was a two-time All-American at Florida State, so it was pretty clear he could be a special player at the next level.
Unfortunately, Hudson was just slow to realize it on the field, again through no fault of his own. Injuries and sitting behind a solid veteran for a season like Wiegmann kept Hudson from showing fans and coaches what he could do. This season, however, he's put it all together.
A closer look at this year's center rankings from Pro Football Focus show just how dominant Hudson has been. Nick Mangold grades out as the top center in the NFL followed by Travis Frederick of the Dallas Cowboys. Hudson comes in third. PFF splits grades between four primary categories for centers:
- Pass block
- Screen block
- Run block
Hudson was the only center in the NFL to grade out positively in every single category. While Mangold and Frederick had higher grades overall, it was their strong performance in specific categories that elevated them above the most consistent performer in the middle in football.
If you watched the Chiefs offense at all this year, this only confirms what you saw with your eyes. Hudson was always consistent up front. He held his own at the point of attack against some of the NFL's best teams. He's excellent at getting in space to help the Andy Reid's signature screens. And he can also help Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis mow straight ahead. Some of his highest overall grades came against the stout defensive fronts of the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers.
They say a rising tide lifts all boats, a maxim proven true by the Dallas Cowboys offensive line this season. The addition of first round rookie Zack Martin to a line that already had Tyron Smith and Frederick makes even the guards look amazing. Next thing you know, Tony Romo is an MVP and DeMarco Murray is a household name breaking Emmitt Smith's records. Yep, Emmitt Smith. That's what an offensive line can do.
So it's even more amazing, then, how Hudson's performance stands out. In an opposite scenario than the Cowboys, the Chiefs low tide of an offensive front should have subtracted from Hudson's performance. Perhaps it did. It's hard not to believe that Hudson could have graded much higher overall if he'd been surrounded by even a league-average performer. Here are the overall grades from Pro Football Focus for the other Chiefs linemen on the season:
- Eric Fisher, 1030 snaps, -17.5 ranking
- Zach Fulton, 1021 snaps, -14.1 ranking
- Ryan Harris, 980 snaps, -3.1 ranking
- Mike McGlynn, 825 snaps, -32.5 ranking (Yep.)
- Jeff Linkenbach, 251 snaps, -5.1 ranking
McGlynn was by far the worst offender, but every single one of the grades above shows a subpar lineman. Some of them are young and still developing. Some (like Fisher) were getting better at season's end. But not one of them remotely helped the perception of Rodney Hudson as an impact player.
Rodney Hudson did that all by himself.
So what should the Chiefs do?
I started with one idea in mind and convinced myself of the complete opposite by the time I was done researching this story. Given the exits suffered in free agency last year of Jon Asamoah, Geoff Schwartz and Branden Albert, it seems ridiculous that Hudson could also leave the Chiefs just 12 months later.
Even more the replacement strategy for Schwartz and Asamoah clearly did not work out. The loss of Jeff Allen hurt for sure, but the Chiefs were content this offseason to sign a couple guys on the cheap, draft a couple more and see what pans out. The pasta-at-the-wall approach made the front line a disaster and the Chiefs offense suffered all season for the lack of a cohesive, proven front.
How can Dorsey and company possibly employ the same idea this offseason and let Hudson walk only to replace him with someone much cheaper? Hudson is only 25-years-old and some team is going to enjoy a dominant performer in the middle of the offense for the next five years or more. Should it not be the Chiefs?
What would Hudson command on the open market? Mangold's deal could set a ceiling, but his 7-year, $54 million contract was signed back in 2010. Ryan Kalil's deal with the Panthers went for 6/$49 million back in 2011 and they've been restructuring ever since. No, the best example is likely Mack, the outlier. The Browns had cap space to spare last year and matched the offer sheet Mack signed with the Jaguars for 5-years, $42 million.
That's not good for the Chiefs.
That means that another team flush with cash can make a move like the Jags made last year for Mack. In fact, the Jaguars are the most likely team to make a grab for Hudson given that they gave up a league-leading 71 sacks this season and must make the investment to protect Blake Bortles in year two or he becomes the next David Carr. The Jags have more cap room than any other team and the need for great players up front.
Other teams with cap space aren't likely to set the high mark for Hudson. The Browns already have Mack in house. The Titans have spent way too much along the offensive line already. The Eagles have Jason Kelce, and the Jets have Mangold, perhaps the best center in football.
In the end, then, it's going to come down to whether or not Hudson wants to remain with the team that drafted him for some small discount or head south to Jacksonville for the big bucks. Even if the Chiefs could get him for a bit cheaper, they're still going to have to come close to $8 million or more per year for Hudson and even that might be shortchanging him. If not, however, the Chiefs could see their best lineman leave for Florida for the second straight offseason.