TEMPE — Last season appeared to be the end of the road for Arizona Cardinals starting left guard Justin Pugh.
After telling his teammates as much, the lineman headed into the offseason with a wedding and his post-football health on his mind.
The NFL was seemingly on the backburner.
That was until he and general manager Steve Keim went back to the drawing board in finding a way Pugh could return for his 10th NFL season and fifth in Arizona. Though he had a hefty final year of his original deal scheduled, the team reportedly worked out a one-year contract for Pugh to return on a $5.5 million salary with $1.5 million in incentives, per Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro.
Throw in the team’s trajectory, his love for the area and its community, and it was a done deal when the dollar signs aligned for the lineman.
“I thought last year was going to be my last year,” Pugh said Tuesday.
“I was preparing (for it after) taking a pay cut going into the fourth year of my contract. I thought we were going to go through that battle again. Me and Keim were able to figure it out. … I wasn’t sure if that was going to happen. Obviously, there’s the business side to football, so I had gotten down pretty low this offseason.
“Was starting to see a two-pack coming in for my wedding. I was happy with (my career). I kind of went out on my terms and someone’s got to block Aaron Donald so they needed to bring me back.”
The change in offseason plans threw Pugh in a ramped-up routine to get back to his playing weight, having gotten down to around 265 pounds at one point. Now, Pugh is taking in 5,000 calories a day and picking up about a pound a week in an effort to reach that 285-pound mark he was at in 2021.
Pugh’s return could mean a lot more than previously thought, too.
With starting center Rodney Hudson not in attendance for any of the voluntary OTAs or the team’s mandatory minicamp on Tuesday, his status remains up in the air with just one more day of work before the team breaks until training camp.
Taking that into account, head coach Kliff Kingsbury has given added center reps to both Pugh and rookie lineman Lecitus Smith. Before Kingsbury’s comments on Tuesday, Arizona had also been utilizing Sean Harlow at the position with Hudson not with the team.
If called, Pugh sounds confident in the task at hand.
“I could see myself playing center,” Pugh said. “I’ve capped out money-wise at guard. If anything, they’re taking more money off my plate if I play guard. So it’s like, why not go out there and try to play center in this offense with Kyler?
“Center’s a very important position. … There’s a lot of centers that played 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 still succeed at that position. We’ll try it out, we’ll see how it goes. If I go out there and don’t play real well, you’ll see me at left guard.”
– Pugh on Hudson: “Rodney’s my guy. Saw him a few weeks ago when I was down in Florida, saw him at my bachelor party, he was at my wedding. I don’t talk football with him … we just kind of relax and get away from it. Obviously, we love Rodney, wish he was here, but that’s something above my pay grade. That’s not a conversation that I’m going to have.”