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Justin Pugh Thought Last Year Would be His Final Season

Arizona Cardinals left guard Justin Pugh took a pay cut last season and didn’t want to battle that again. But he did and now looks forward to competing.

Cardinals left guard Justin Pugh believed what happened in 2021 when he took a pay cut to return to the team would be it for him in Arizona.

“I thought last year was gonna be my last year,” he told reporters Tuesday after the team’s first of two minicamp practices.

Pugh had signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Cardinals in 2018, but NFL reality knocked at his door last year.

Scheduled to be paid a $7.75 million base salary, a $1.4 million roster bonus, plus up to $1.5 million in per-game roster bonuses but with nothing guaranteed, Pugh agreed to slash his 2021 pay to $5 million, which included a guaranteed base salary of $4 million plus up to $1 million instead of $1.5 million in per-game bonuses. 

Photo: Alex Weiner, Sports Illustrated

The roster bonus was also eliminated. That reduced his cap hit to $6.94 million, which was about $4.2 million lower than it would have been.

When that agreement occurred, his 2022 salary was reduced from $8.525 million to $8.025 million, while $1.5 million roster and per-game bonuses were reduced to $1 million. The roster bonus was scheduled to be paid on the fifth day of the 2022 league year (March 20).

Thoughts of retirement creeped into his mind, figuring he’d have to go through another salary slash this year.

“I never had to think about retiring before,” Pugh said. “You get a scholarship at 17, 18 years old, no brainer. I'll go to college for free. You get drafted in the first round, someone gives you x amount of dollars; no reason to walk away. All of a sudden, it's like, ‘Hey, I'm going to cut your pay.’

“I don't care what you're getting paid. If someone cuts your pay by 33%, you're not going to be happy. And I wasn't happy when it happened. And then you look at it and you start factoring how much you love the game, how much you love being around the guys, how much you love to compete, and there's no dollar amount that can fill that gap. So it's one of those things where I wasn't ready to walk away from it. I wasn't ready to not have the locker room, not have the guys.”

So, as March approached, Pugh admitted, “I thought we were going to go through that battle again.”

So, Pugh took the bull by the horns, talked to general manager Steve Keim and said we “were able to figure it out. I said, ‘Hey, this is what it's gonna take to get me back.’ And he was like, ‘Hey, done deal.’ So I came in and signed it. I wasn't sure if that was going to happen.”

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The $8.025 million non-guaranteed base salary was reduced to $5.5 million guaranteed, while the roster bonus and per-game bonuses were eliminated. That saved the Cardinals more than $4.2 million of cap space.

Asked what goes through one's mind when he’s almost being forced to retire, Pugh said, “It's not a good feeling. But it happens to everybody. Every year we draft rookies, we bring in young guys, you bring in young talent, those guys are getting paid. It's time for them to step up. And until they can bring in someone that can actually replace me, they're still gonna have to pay me. And that's just the nature of the business.

“And I proved myself valuable enough last year to come back. And that's really what it is. It's every year; it's a new challenge. And I take that challenge on. If someone can come in and play better left guard than me, they deserve to be the starter and I deserve to be on the streets looking for a job. That hasn't happened yet.”

Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is glad Pugh is back for at least one more season.

“He is a tremendous football mind,” Kingsbury said. “First and foremost, I felt last year he had one of the best years of his career.”

Recalling games in 2019 where Pugh had to play tackle because of injuries, Kingsbury said, “He didn't blink. That's not exactly what you want to be doing if you're him. But ever since then, I've had such a great respect for him. Great leader, great professional and like I said, I think he's playing some of his best football right now.”

Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman Justin Pugh (67) against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Pugh isn’t making any predictions of what will happen when he becomes a free agent after the season.

Reiterating that “I thought last year was gonna be my last year,” he added, “I told everybody that I thought, depending on how the contract went, if it went the same way I was going to be gone. And now I feel like a liar. So I tell everyone now it's one year at a time, it depends on what happens. There's different opportunities this year, and we'll go out there and give it our all and see where the chips fall. Let's go win some games and the contract kind of takes care of itself.”

He also said believing what this team can accomplish made him want to continue playing.

“It's huge,” Pugh said. “I mean, you don't want to come back and lose football games. The direction that we're trending is, it's gonna be fun playing football. We obviously have to pick things up later in the season and we know that, but it's an exciting time to be an Arizona Cardinal.

“I love living here. I love being in this community. I love being a part of this team. I've lived here. I haven't left in the offseason even though it's 115 (degrees). My wife and I, we stay here, we love being out here in Arizona, so that played a huge factor. We didn't want to go anywhere.”