According to multiple sources, free agent linebacker Gerald Hodges is visiting One Bills Drive today. He has made several visits this offseason, and still has visits lined up after today. His services are a commodity, and when you turn on the eye in the sky, you can certainly understand why.
Hodges is a balanced linebacker. He isn’t a top end athlete, as he possesses just average speed and below average explosiveness, but he shows some very good lateral agility and good balance. His lateral agility is one of my favorite traits, specifically versus the run. He has the ability to shuffle, cover enough ground to keep extremely good leverage on the running back, keep square shoulders, and plant and make the tackle.
Completely zoned in on the runner/ball
Keep in mind that in San Francisco, he played Will linebacker in a 3-4 defense. In Buffalo, he would more than likely be playing Will in a 4-3. Of course, with different schemes comes different assignments, but the outside linebacker assignments in the Bills’ defense should play to his strengths. He has awareness versus the run. He quickly reads gap and zone runs equally and inserts himself into those gaps. A technique that McDermott and Frazier teach at the linebacker position is the spill technique. As the run develops, the play side linebackers are asked to insert into their gaps and spill/force the running back wide. Hodges executes perfectly versus New England.
Notice the helmet placement is always in his gap. On the first play, the run is attacking the defense to the weak side. He inserts and allows the Mike to flow over the top for the tackle. On the second play, he is aligned to the strength and immediately inserts and is able to fight through the block and assist on the tackle.
As far as his position, based on the skill he possesses and the LB unit, I think he plays Will. However, the Sam and Will do move and are interchangeable, to an extent. For example, in a defense like Buffalo is going to run, you will see a lot of 4-3 under looks. The 4-3 under looks like this, and you can expect Hodges to run as the Will. That is, off the ball, where he excels. He would struggle at Sam here because he doesn’t have the length or stacking ability at the point of attack.
During certain game plans he can play Sam, but he will have to be stacked or covered. That is possible in a 4-3 over front, something that McDermott loves to run. Here, you see Davis, who was primarily a Will LB stacked behind two defensive lineman, as it allows him to stay clean and make plays on the ball if the ball were to come downhill at him.
Here is a similar look by the Niners last season, but from an odd front. Watch how Brooks spills the play to Hodges. He gets downhill and knows the gap he must occupy, but manages to use his short area quickness to cut inside the block to make the tackle.
I watched four games of Hodges 2016, and I came away surprised at how well he played versus the run. I always believed that he was purely a coverage guy, but if put in the proper scheme and position, then he is well above serviceable against the run. Keep him clean and he can make plays. He had the 13th highest run stop percentage for inside linebackers last season, including 29 run stops, and only missed 5 tackles against the run.
3-4 under, Hodges aligned as the WILL.
Hodges has only averaged 54% of the snaps in his career, so you know that he does have some limitations. Last season, he was subbed out on third downs. Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini liked to run a lot of three safety looks, so Hodges was usually brought out of the game. However, it was also because Mangini liked to play a lot of man coverage on those downs. He had three good safeties to do so. Typically, safety Eric Reid would be inserted and asked to play versus running backs and tight ends in man coverage. Man coverage is not one of Hodges’ strengths.
Play action gets the best of him here
As a three down LB, usually the Will LB is aligned to either the field or the passing strength. On the first play below, he is aligned away from the passing strength AND into the boundary, and you can see he struggles to cover the receiver and actually trips the player. On the second play versus the Cardinals, he is aligned to the passing strength AND to the field. He is in man coverage and struggles to open up his hips, and it allows the tight end, Jermaine Gresham to separate. On the final play against New England, he is matched up with RB Dion Lewis on the backside of a 3×1 formation, a role that Will LBs often play. I actually love how he meets the running back and utilizes the hover technique of firing his feet, but when Lewis commits inside, Hodges disrupts the back but can’t explode with him. He doesn’t have the type of feet, change of direction, or explosion to match up with those kinds of players.
The following three plays occurred on 1st or 2nd and 10
His struggles in man coverage can be minimized by scheme, and luckily for him, the Bills are apparently going to play a scheme that Hodges could flourish in. We can expect more zone coverage in 2017, which is a long way from Rex Ryan’s defense. In 2016, he was only targeted 24 times, allowing 18 receptions for 179 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions.
As a zone defender, he is very good at restricting early pass options and at recognizing threats that may enter his zone. On the first play, the Niners drop into what appears to be cover 3 match and Brady wants to hit the crosser, but the quick downhill reaction by Hodges changes Brady’s mind. A similar thing happens on the second play. Watch how as the ball is snapped, Hodges finds Bennett.
Stopping crossers will be a TREMENDOUS asset to the Bills’ defense. Shutting down the middle of the field, I’m sure, is a priority, especially if they want to beat the Patriots.
He is very good as a hook to curl linebacker. He knows when to expand horizontally to restrict passing lanes, or bring the receiver down to limit YAC.
His spatial and zone awareness overall is really good, and that is why he was drafted by Frazier in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. Look at how he flows in the direction of the play, finds Cooks who is trying to sneak underneath, and takes away a possible TD.
Potential Bills Fit:
Linebacker Gerald Hodges is no doubt a fit in the new Buffalo Bills’ defense. He is a linebacker that is much better versus the run than most people realize. He uses his mental processing skills and leverage to get his body into a position at the point of attack to spill plays to his teammates or to make a play himself. He uses very good lateral agility to shuffle down the line of scrimmage, track the ball, and fill versus runs away from him. If kept clean, which will probably be the case behind Buffalo’s defensive line, he can be a tackle machine.
Versus the pass, he does have limitations. He isn’t the athlete that Zach Brown was, so he can’t be asked to carry out the same responsibilities. What he lacks in athleticism, which is exposed in man coverage, he makes up for with zone eyes and awareness. He displays the ability to read the QB, find zone threats, and take away options from the QB. For a defense that is attempting to switch to a more zone based scheme, I think that he is the perfect fit.
People want to compare him to Preston Brown because he played both the Sam and Will for Jim Schwartz in 2014. That scheme uses a lot of similar techniques and concepts to what McDermott runs, so the comparison makes sense. What most aren’t factoring in, is that Brown is in the last year of his deal. He may have to play Mike until Ragland is healthy. When both of these players were in a 4-3 defense, Hodges was the more consistent player AND has more skills that fit the current scheme.
Each graded around the same versus the pass, but after watching film on the both of them, I think Hodges is a much better zone defender. He has the ability to find threats, click, and close. Both linebackers struggle in man coverage, and that’s why the Bills used Nigel Bradham in those matchups or game situations in 2014, relegating Brown to play the ‘rat in the hole’ role quite often.
Hodges produced comparable numbers to Brown in 2014 with half of the snaps.
With all of that factored in, in my opinion, Hodges is a much better fit, and the Bills should make a push to sign him.