Gerald Hodges, a linebacker who may best be fit as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 defense, was the Vikings' pick at #120 in the fourth round. With a glaring need at middle linebacker, Hodges could play inside with his experience as a safety serving as a deep option on Tampa-2 downs or stay outside while allowing Erin Henderson's experience and familiarity spearhead the defensive effort.
Hodges comes from "Linebacker U," a school that is well known for producing NFL-ready linebackers, the most famous of which might be Jack Ham. More recently, Navorro Bowman, Sean Lee, Dan Conno, Paul Posluzny, Tamba Hali and Cameron Wake have all been PSU products.
Hodges weighs in at 6'1" 243 pounds and gained weight as a result of a move from safety to linebacker his freshman season. His best asset is quick read-react ability that allows him to quickly fill in gaps and sort through traffic. As a pass defender, he can track the ball well and maintain balance, and is known for winning the positioning battle.
With that comes some ability to blitz from the edge, and Hodges' ability to move around the field likely was a determining factor in his pick. His bulk and ability to meet up with lead blockers also gives him strong-side linebacking ability, but he plays with a weak-side linebacker's instincts. More than that, he doesn't shed blockers as well as he might want to in order to play the Sam position, although he does play with some good technique when meeting a pulling lineman or fullback, correctly bending his knees and keeping his hands active.
Unfortunately, Hodges doesn't play with the level of physicality as his more well-known predecessors and will need to learn to drive through his tackles. Otherwise, Hodges is well-known for having excellent tackling technique, keeping his head up and wrapping well. He needs to improve his tackling angles, but they aren't a huge issue. He doesn't always hit his coverage drops with the appropriate depth and that may limit his options. Beyond that, his ability to track the ball well doesn't always translate into good zone play against specific receivers and will need to bone up on his burst to the ball and passing angles.
At the combine he impressed observers with his coverage ability, and may have allayed concerns about depth on drops, displaying the best coverage instincts of the gathered linebackers, a great backpedal, smooth hips and excellent work in transition. The Nittany Lions had him man up one-to-one against tight ends and running backs and he performed admirably, making him a potentially better coverage guy than his zone issues may imply. Certainly it means he could cover the seam and play with smart form. His ability to read the quarterback, however, means he has excellent upside as a zone defender.
He can on occasion get caught up reacting to play action passes and other play fakes and doesn't always have the recovery speed to get back into position. His work containing on the outside is a bit difficult as he's a little impatient, but his move to work downhill to the ballcarrier will translate better in the NFL than it does in college.
All of these qualities speak to the ability of the Vikings to potentially move Erin Henderson to the middle linebacker position or let the former safety take the reins and man the position from day one. More likely, however, Henderson's familiarity with the offense and experience at middle linebacker will allow the Vikings to move Henderson inside and keep Hodges and Greenway on during nickel downs.
A major in Rehabilitation Services, the true senior entered Penn State as the 4th overall outside linebacker in the nation, as determined by Scout.com. He finished his senior year with 109 tackles, 8.5 of them for a loss and one sack. He also recorded 9 pass deflections and two interceptions while also forcing one fumble.
Explosive measurables speak to his talent, with a 35 inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 119 inches—eyepopping for a linebacker. His 40-time of 4.78 is neither encouraging nor discouraging, although his movement through traffic and aroudn the field is adequate anyway.
Hodges leaves Penn State with a few accolades, including back-to-back Defensive Player of the Week awards from the Big Ten and was a Butkus award semifinalist. Of note, he also returned kicks and a punt against the Ohio Bobcats, although was none too impressive.
Gerald Hodges can provide value as a middle linebacker, weakside linebacker or even strongside linebacker in a pinch. The versatility that the quick former safety can provide makes him an intriguing choice and fits the theme of defensive flexibility the Vikings have been pursuing with the Xavier Rhodes pick this year and the investment in bigger, faster man coverage corners overall. Expect the defense to vary its looks even more than last year and move away from the stale Tampa-2 looks they saw when Pagac last coordinated the defense.