Tanner Hudson had a very nice start to his second professional football season on Friday night, during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 30-28 preseason loss in Pittsburgh. Hudson hauled in seven passes for 84 yards, scored a touchdown on a brilliant one-handed catch and generally added a new dimension to the Buccaneers' efforts to form a tight end depth chart for the regular season.
He also discovered the consequences of even the smallest of miscues at the NFL level.
Hudson needed to make a circus on his touchdown – on fourth-and-goal, no less – because he had deviated just a bit from his intended route. Hudson also absorbed a vicious hit from Steelers cornerback Marcelis Branch, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty that led to a first-and-goal right before the Buccaneers' final score. He was quick to absolve quarterback Ryan Griffin from any blame on the play, saying that he had missed a landmark on his route.
"The biggest [hit] I took was my fault anyway," said Hudson. "We have landmarks for a reason and I got off that. So I kind of did it to myself on that one. But you've just got to hop up; it's part of football."
The important thing, of course, is that Hudson made both plays, and a bunch more. His minor mistakes are correctable, which is in fact the point of the preseason and training camp, but his instincts, athleticism and toughness aren't teachable.
Case in point, the scoring play, on which Hudson lined up in the slot to the left from Pittsburgh's four and made contact quickly with safety Marcus Allen. Hudson ran across the goal line, got separation from Allen and turned around…and basically caught a pass that was already past him, somehow. Hudson said he got too vertical on his route, which took him about five yards off his intended spot.
"It's one of those where you just kind of turn around, the ball's there and you've got to throw something at it, he said. "Luckily, it stuck."
Good choice of words – Hudson is doing what he can to stick. He's part of a very talented tight end corps that is headlined by O.J. Howard and Cam Brate, perhaps the NFL's most dynamic duo at the position. The depth chart also includes Antony Auclair, who has been the team's third tight end for the past two years thanks mostly to his blocking prowess. Since July, the team has also added a pair of veterans in Jordan Leggett and Scott Orndoff. Hudson could be battling Auclair and the others for the third spot, or he could be trying to convince Bruce Arians and company to keep four tight ends at the expense of another position. He's not trying to do that math right now, however.
"If you start really thinking about that you're going to stress yourself out," said Hudson. "So I really just try to come out here and put my best tape out there, show them my strengths and just try to be the best I can be. I'd say my receiving is ahead of [the rest of the positional demands]. I'd really like to get my blocking to where I could sustain and be able to hold my own in there, but yeah I'd say my receiving is a lot better than everything else."
Hudson's performance in the preseason opener obviously can't hurt. He originally joined the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Arkansas in 2018, and he's been in Tampa ever since. He spent nearly all of his rookie season the practice squad before a late-season promotion to the active roster, and while he didn't see any game action in December that unbroken tenure is an indication that the team saw real NFL potential. He's working under a new coaching staff now and thus trying to make another first impression, and his biggest takeaway from Friday's game was to clean up his play on special teams, where he drew a pair of penalties.
"It was good," said Hudson of his 2019 debut. "Like [Arians] said, I'd really like to get those penalties out on special teams because that will be a big part of my role on the team if I was to make it. Other than that though, I need to work on my hands, blocking-wise but I think it was a pretty decent game."
That pretty decent game drew attention to what is a pretty entertaining journey for a young player. Hudson hails from the small town of Big Sandy, Tennessee, the population of which he estimates at about 500 people. He played high school football in nearby Camden, which he put at about 2,000 people. Hudson was born in Paris, Tennessee, another small town that boasts its own scaled-down version of the Eiffel Tower. When Hudson's name pops up on the Bucs' twitter feed, his people pop up right afterward in force.
"We're a big family there," he said. "In Camden, there's about 2,000 people; Big Sandy probably like 500. So everybody kind of knows everybody. My mom there, she's really big in the school system, everybody respects here, so she's put our name out there. Here and my dad have made a really good name for us, so everybody kind of backs us up."
From Camden, Hudson first went to Memphis as a 205-pound quarterback-slash-punter. After a redshirt year, he transferred to Southern Arkansas, originally to continue playing quarterback. However, there was a starter in place and, with a redshirt option, Hudson moved to receiver in order to get on the field. As he got bigger, the Muleriders' coaches liked the mismatch he gave them at tight end, and that opened up a new world. Hudson caught 135 passes for 2,084 yards and 23 touchdowns over the next three seasons and was an all-conference pick as a senior.
After signing with the Buccaneers, Hudson found a player at his position who had successfully navigated the rise from undrafted free agent to a prominent NFL role in Cam Brate.
"[It was] a lot of coaching and dedication to just learning that new position," said Hudson of the transition. "I had some really good coaches at my college that taught me a lot, helped me stick with it, and then when I got here I had Cam to look up to and mentor me and work towards that."
Hudson is still working towards that opening-day spot on the 53-man roster. He's still working on fine-tuning his game and eliminating the mistakes that are practically unavoidable for young players. He made a few on Friday night, some of which actually led to his most impressive moments and some of which he had to pay for in the film room. But Hudson also made a lot of very good plays in Pittsburgh, and maybe that will help him stick in the end.