Cowboys 2013 Draft Targets: Penn St. OLB Gerald Hodges

Justin K. Aller

Because there has been such a high correlation in recent years between the top collegians invited to Valley Ranch for pre-draft visits and who the Cowboys end up drafting, its important to know as much as possible about these players. As a service to you, BTB offers a series of detailed scouting reports on these players, compiled from the work of top draft analysts. Today, we'll look at Penn St. outside 'backer Gerald Hodges

Gerald Hodges was a prep quarterback, and began his Penn State career on the depth charts as a safety but, due to injuries at linebacker in his freshman season, filled in, then stayed a while (playing all thirteen games) and ended up never going back, playing in 47 games at LB for the Nittany Lions. In the 2011 season, Hodges led Penn State with 106 tackles and also had 10 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks as a full-time starter and second-team All-Big Ten pick. As a senior in 2012, Hodges totaled 109 tackles (8.5 for loss), a sack, and two interceptions, earning second-team All-Big Ten honors for the second year in a row.

As these numbers attest, Hodges was a durable and productive multi-year starter. Although he's by no means tiny (6-1, 243-pounds) Hodges isn't a bulky take-on guy; rather, he uses his athleticism and impressive burst to to defeat blocks and track down rival ballcarriers sideline to sideline. This athleticism was on display during the post-season, where Hodges showed average straight-line speed (only a 4.78 40-yard dash) but demonstrated very good agility in the short-shuttle (4.25 seconds) and good explosiveness in the vertical jump, with a 35 1/2 inch mark.

Where Hodges particularly shone was in the position drills; Hodges was outstanding during coverage drills, possibly the best of his LB group. He got terrific depth on drops and never dropped a pass. His change of direction was smooth, and Hodges was fast moving to all areas of the field. Indeed, as a former safety, Hodges excels as a pass defender; the Lions' coaches had great confidence in his coverage, frequently matching him up one-on-one against tight ends and running backs. Hodges intercepted three passes and knocked down another 14 balls as a collegian.

Want to see this first hand? Again the excellent fellows at Draft Breakdown have you covered. Here is Hodges in Big Ten action against Ohio State and Nebraska (Nebraska? Big Ten? still feels weird) and facing off against Illinois in 2011.

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ESPN/ Scouts, Inc. (Gary Horton): 14th-rated OLB; not in top 150

Instincts/ Recognition: Diagnostic skills are average but have room for improvement. Can find and react to the ball quicker and with more consistency. Will false step which can affect his run fit and gap responsibility. Works to keep outside contain but will get caught peeking inside on occasion and surrender the edge. More instinctive in coverage at this point. Locates targets in his territory. Can read QBs eyes and get into throwing windows.

Take-on Skills: Area of weakness. Not a take on linebacker. Flashes some upper body snap and quick hands. However, lacks power in his upper body and needs work with hands in terms of technique disengaging from blocks. Also will dip head and needs to do a better job of keeping his eyes up at the point of contact. Lacks a prototypical anchor and can be engulfed and rode off the spot.

Range vs. Run: Former safety and easy mover. Light on his feet and moves well laterally. Displays a quick change of direction. Closing burst is above-average and can make up ground chasing in pursuit. Protects feet well moving laterally. Likes to chase. Can take a poor angle on occasion. Will duck underneath instead of working over the top to stay alive in the play.

Tackling: Fundamentally sound in this area. Tackles with proper pad level and wraps up. Does not have a ton of power. Not a knock back tackler. However, shows a quick short-area burst to strike when able to line up defenders. Will come in too hot in pursuit and lose inside leverage in pursuit at times.

Third Down Capabilities: Best attribute is in coverage. Shows more than adequate range in underneath zone coverage. Flashes playmaking instincts and the anticipation to get into throwing lanes and make a play on the ball. Possesses the athleticism and movement skills to match up with RBs and most TEs in man coverage. Still developing and not an impact pass rusher. Flashes quickness off the edge. However, lacks power and doesn't use his hands well. Lacks natural pass rushing instincts on twists and stunts.

Intangibles: Son of Gerald Sr. and Sheila Hodges. Enrolled at Penn State in January of 2009. Moved from safety to linebacker during the 2009 season.

National Football Post (Russ Lande): 15th-rated OLB; 165th overall

Strengths: Under-rated athletically, Hodges has the speed and range to make plays all over the field against the run and in coverage. Smooth and fluid dropping into coverage, Hodges can flip hips to adjust easily. He shows excellent awareness picking up TE and covering him perfectly in man coverage on attempted naked boot-leg pass to TE. Does a good job reading QB/Pass so that he can transition and close quickly on pass to make good tackle right after the catch. When he has space to work with, he uses his quickness and agility to change directions fast to avoid blockers and make tackles on runs to his side. While not a big linebacker, when he keeps his knees bent and uses hands well to take on pulling offensive lineman, he can hold ground, sheds and makes tackle. He gets started towards the ball quickly on running plays away and has the speed to easily track down the ball carrier in backside pursuit. A versatile defender and productive special teams player make him a valuable asset to his team.

Weaknesses: A player who looks and plays much smaller than his weight, Hodges can be tied up and blocked out of the play too easily. While he can be effective when he does everything right technically, big offensive lineman can engulf him and he becomes a non-factor. He gets bounced around moving in tight quarters and needs to get better using his hands to stay clean and work through it. Although he closes quickly enough to make tackles after the catch, he needs to prove he can get there in time to make a play on the ball.

Summary: More than a decade ago, an under-sized linebacker (While he weighed 243 at Combine, he did not play that heavy during the season) like Hodges likely would have had no chance of being drafted because size and strength were viewed as vital to be effective run defenders. However, in today's pass first NFL if a linebacker lacks strength to be a force against the run and is just adequate in that area, but shines in pass coverage he has good value because linebackers who are strong in coverage are hard to find. Overall, I do not anticipate Hodges being a high draft choice, but on the third day of the draft some team is going to make a wise choice. He has the talent to develop into a quality starter if he can improve his play against blockers and should excel on special teams coverage units, which gives him more value.

Pro Football Weekly (Nolan Nawrocki): 8th-rated OLB; 98th overall

Positives: Maintains 9.7 percent body fat. Plays on his feet and bends naturally. Agile and athletic. Able to redirect and accelerates smoothly. Flows well laterally, ranges to secure. Pop on contact. Has three-down ability.

Negatives: Lacks ideal size and needs to get stronger. Effectiveness wanes when unprotected. Can be engulfed by bigger blockers. Needs to play with more shock in his hands to shed blocks.

Summary: A high school wrestling standout and converted safety, Hodges didn't receive the acclaim of some teammates, but he's another quality ‘backer from "Linebacker U," possessing starter-caliber athleticism to fit nicely on the weak side of a fast-flowing 4-3 scheme.

Ourlads (Dan Shonka): 13th-rated OLB; 130th overall

As a two-year starter, he led Penn State in 2011 with 106 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, an interception, and two forced fumbles. An ascending talent who started his career as a safety which gave him experience in pass coverage. Plays well laterally, stays square, and gets downhill when the openings are there. Sudden to read and react. Demonstrates good catch up speed. Sees, registers, and reacts. Fills downhill quickly and aggressively. Top end speed for sideline to sideline range. Hustles and has the speed to make a difference. Fluid in his pass drops. Reads the quarterback and reacts well. Good flow to the ball. Needs more strength at the point of attack. Will take bad angles at times on swing passes out of the backfield. He will contribute on all special teams' coverage.

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Our scouts have varying opinions on Hodges; they slot him anywhere from 98th (end of third round) to 165th, which would place him in the latter part of round five. I'm going to split the difference and place him in the fourth round on my "little board." Hodges is an athletic, versatile, up-and-coming player whose best years are ahead of him. He offers potential as an athletic three-down, linebacker and the size to man the strong side in a scheme like the Cowboys', which places a premium on speed and agility.

Moreover, he's clearly an RKG; notice that his most productive seasons came when Penn State was embroiled in the Sandusky affair. Despite everything going on around him at the school, Hodges remained a highly productive team leader. If the draft falls the right way, and offensive and defensive linemen are available in two of the first three rounds, the Cowboys may wait until the fourth round before they take a linebacker. If this happens, and that linebacker proves to be Hodges, I'll number myself among those made happy by the selection.

Next up: Arizona State outside linebacker Brandon Magee

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