Darius Hodge may not jump off the page as an NFL-caliber defensive end prospect, but he sure played like one in the Bengals' 19-14 victory over the Buccaneers.
The undrafted rookie stands at 6-1, 248 pounds and is listed as a linebacker, but he was anything but the second line of defense on Saturday.
Hodge racked up five quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, and three tackles, despite only being on the field for 26 snaps (42%). The Bengals have been searching for a diamond in the rough on this defensive front for years.
The undrafted rookie couldn't have started much better on his path to be that find. More play like we saw on Saturday should get that position changed from linebacker to defensive end quickly.
"He did a nice job," Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said. "The fact that his play continues to do well, he’ll get the reps that he deserves."
Hodge's size left most evaluators wondering if he could last in the rigorous climate of NFL football, but his explosiveness has never been in question. Here are his testing numbers from his Pro Day at Marshall, along with where they would've ranked among defensive ends that were at the 2021 NFL Combine:
40-Yard Dash: 4.67 seconds (4th)
Three-Cone: 7.18 seconds (7th)
Bench Press: 26 (5th)
Vertical Jump: 38.5 inches (3rd)
All of that potential just needed a little daylight to thrive. Hodge made his mark and got noticed in southern Florida this weekend. The first signs of that daylight had to be seen by a keen eye. Enter Bengals east coast scout Andrew Johnson who noticed Hodge's numbers at the Pro Day.
"Andrew made us aware of him because of that explosion," senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner told Bengals.com after Monday's practice. "He's explosive, tough, he'll compete. Plays hard. He wants to be a good player. That's what you want. When you've got guys that want to work hard, are tough, and they've got explosion, come on with it."
Hodge played in 22 games during his final two seasons with the Thundering Herd. He amassed 13.5 sacks over that span, which led the team. One preseason performance doesn't make Hodge the second coming of Carlos Dunlap, but he showed enough to keep his chances of making the 53-man roster alive.
The Bengals haven't found a late-round or undrafted edge rusher with impact ability much at all over the last 20 years. Since 2001, only 2005 seventh-round pick Jonathan Fanene has come in to make an impact with that distinction. Hodge doesn't have a high bar to clear there. Fanene amassed 13.5 sacks in 71 appearances for Cincinnati.
Hodge is listed as a linebacker, but it's hard to say he's not an edge rusher after he and fellow rookie Joseph Ossai put pressure on the Tampa quarterbacks.
Too many cooks in the defensive end room would be a welcome problem for a Bengals team that's searched for a pass rush since last making the playoffs. The team ranked dead last in the NFL last year with 17 sacks and ranked in the top half of the league just once since finishing 10th in 2015.
Depth, in particular, has been lacking for this team. A surprise pop from a player like Hodge can help those headaches disappear quickly. Speaking of too many cooks in the kitchen, unfortunately, one of those chefs ahead of Hodge won't be available in the near future.
Ossai had a stellar debut himself—notching three tackles (one for loss), a sack, and two quarterback hits. However, he likely won't get a chance to follow that up for the rest of the preseason after landing on the injury report with a wrist injury he suffered during the third quarter of Saturday's game.
The next man up mentality applies here for Hodge, who should get even more opportunities now that Ossai [a lock to make the team] won't be a part of the edge rotation. The undrafted rookie was the Bengals' best defensive player while totaling just 26 snaps, less than half the average total for a starter in the regular season.
Life is all about opportunity, and Hodge's big break is there for the taking. Time to see what he does for an encore in the nation's capital.
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