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Bengals Deal In Depth

TE Tanner Hudson leaps over the defense during the Packers-Bengals preseason game at Paycor Stadium on Friday, August 11, 2023.
TE Tanner Hudson leaps over the defense during the Packers-Bengals preseason game at Paycor Stadium on Friday, August 11, 2023.

As the NFL trade deadline passed Tuesday, the only deal the Bengals made came from their belief that their roster and practice squad are deep, talented, and ready.

That was made clear when their first move after the deadline was using the third and final elevation to the active 53-man roster from the practice squad Wednesday for veteran tight end Tanner Hudson in the run-up to Sunday night's game (8:20-Cinciunnati's Channel 5) at Paycor Stadium against the Bills.

With one move they were able to expand quarterback Joe Burrow's targets at a position looking for a lift with a guy he likes throwing to and already has collaborated on an explosive play (a 26-yarder) this season among Hudson's four catches.

And do it while also keeping their compensatory draft picks as well as their salary cap structure intact and not having to wait a month for a new player to learn the offense well enough to contribute.

Not a bad day at the office.

"I think the guys on our practice squad are all worthy of playing in games for us. Over five years you wouldn't always be able to say that," said head coach Zac Taylor before Wednesday's practice. "Sometimes there's just not enough guys around the league to feel that way about your whole practice squad, but the way piece by piece Duke's (Tobin) added guys in the offseason, cutdowns, the offseason, you've built this practice squad group that understands what their role could be. They know that they're a day away from being elevated, playing in a game, and having a specific role. I feel really good about the depth of the entirety of our roster right now."

While much angst and time was spent on deadline speculation, reality went in-house. Hudson got promoted and Taylor says rookie punt returner/wide receiver Charlie Jones (thumb) won't come off injured reserve this week even though he's eligible. And they can afford to wait another week because of depth.

Such as, veteran No. 4 wide receiver Trenton Irwin just keeps making plays (another big fourth-quarter 21-yard dagger in Frisco like in Pittsburgh and Tennessee last year), as well as being resourceful on punt returns.

Maybe you could say the trade was Hudson for Jones, but that's too narrow. Suffice to say depth played a major role in last month's discussions heading into the deadline. The Hudson promotion comes in the wake of starting tight end Irv Smith Jr.'s red-zone fumble last Sunday, but this move appears to be more about Hudson's practice production.

"He's earned it. Just start with that," Taylor said. "Right away he set the tone with what he can bring to the table. He was on the practice squad during the season and did a great job. Had a great offseason, great summer, great training camp. Sometimes the roster just shakes out the way it shakes out, but he has continued to put his head down and work every day in practice. He makes plays on the scout teams. He's done a great job in-line blocking, does a great job route running. He's earned an opportunity to get up. It's more about maybe him than anything else just earning that opportunity. That's the right way to reward guys when it makes sense." 

The public saw it in training camp and the media saw it in the spring, where Burrow developed a nice little chemistry with Hudson he hasn't forgotten.

"He's tough, hard-working, really good in the pass game, really good pass catcher, good after the catch," Burrow said. "He's going to bring an element that we're excited about."

What tight ends coach James Casey appreciates is that this is far from Hudson's first rodeo. When he played the second and third games this season after Smith injured a hamstring, he logged his 34th and 35th games with his fourth different team. Burrow hears a lot of Tom Brady comparisons. But Hudson actually had a ball thrown at him from Brady in a Super Bowl his Bucs won during a year Hudson caught three balls from him.

When director of player personnel Duke Tobin and his scouts presented Hudson late last season for a workout for the practice squad, Casey knew who he was. On Fridays he puts together cutups from around the league for his own players to view and it was not lost on Casey that Hudson was the leading receiver for the Bucs against the Bengals in the 2021 preseason opener with four catches for 48 yards.

Casey loved the way he ran routes, so it was no coincidence on his first play in practice as a Bengal he caught a one-on-one fade route from the departed Brandon Allen.

"It's not like you're throwing in a terrified rookie into Sunday Night Football," Casey said. "He's been around five years and he's an excellent receiver. He's played in the Super Bowl. And he's played a position where you have to know a lot of things. The words for run plays, pass concepts. Blocking. It's a lot."

Which complicates a mid-season trade for a tight end. Hudson has gone though enough football to not be intimidated by a playbook.

"That was a nice, 'Hey I'm here,' to the team," Hudson says of his opening fade.

The 6-5, 239-pound Hudson was a quarterback, kicker, and punter at Camden Central High School in Tennessee, went to Memphis, transferred to Southern Arkansas, and played in 43 games after he was moved to receiver to get him on the field. He put on weight and his career 15 yards per catch on 143 balls caught the eye of the Bucs and they signed him as a 2018 undrafted free agent. That was the first of 27 transactions with the latest Wednesday's elevation.

He had a good enough training camp this year that it was a mild surprise he was cut and then not claimed, but he re-signed to the practice squad.

"I really like this team. I love the coaching staff. I'm glad to still be here," Hudson said of coping with all the moves. "It's stressful times going from team to team. But you have to learn what you can from each team and take it with you."

He took this:

Practice squad guard-center Nate Gilliam likes to take pre-practice snaps with the three centers on the roster, Ted Karras, Max Scharping, and Trey Hill. But there are only three quarterbacks, so Hudson jumps in to take those snaps.

"The more you can do," said Hudson during a week the Bengals did more by staying inside.