How TE Bucky Hodges began his path to the draft by being Eric Ebron

How TE Bucky Hodges began his path to the draft by being Eric Ebron

Virginia Tech tight end Bucky Hodges wasn't groomed to draw comparisons to Jimmy Graham. Before the 6-foot-7, 257 pounder caught 20 touchdowns and racked up 1,755 yards in Blacksburg, he was a four-star quarterback recruit with a better Rivals ranking than the likes of Davis Webb and Joshua Dobbs.

A month into his freshman season season, though, Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster needed someone to "play" Eric Ebron, the former North Carolina tight end, on scout team. Hodges had worked as Virginia Tech's scout team quarterback, but Foster identified him as the perfect fit to mimic the future first-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions. As it turns out, Hodges stuck at tight end permanently. 

"(Foster) said I could emulate his game a lot so he asked me if I'd be cool playing tight end that week," Hodges said at the combine last month. "And I started playing it and I fell in love with the position and it stuck ever since."

If the Bears target a tight end on Day 2 of next week's NFL Draft, Hodges should be among the pool of players available with the 67th overall pick. The Graham comparison is lofty, but one made by Pro Football Focus:

"The pair share extremely similar size, athleticism, and Hodges has displayed exemplary versatility with Graham's big-play potential. Graham spent his first year in the NFL improving his blocking technique and, with that same level of organizational development, Hodges possesses the tools to become one of the better tight ends in the NFL." (via PFF's Draft Pass)

Like most mid- or late-round tight ends, Hodges isn't "complete" as in he's accomplished as a pass-catcher, but not as much as a blocker. Hodges played wide receiver for Virginia Tech in 2016 and, at least early in his pro career, having him in a game would likely be a clear signal to a defense that the offense will pass (Hodges said in Indianapolis almost every team has talked to him about being a tight end, not a receiver). 

Hodges, though, spoke at the combine like someone committed to improving as a blocking tight end. 

"I'm tough," Hodges said. "I'm not scared to put my helmet into anyone's face. If you're playing against me, I'm going at you the whole game—run play, pass play, that's the type of player I am. I'm still raw fundamental-wise and technique-wise, but I know I'm capable of it because of my work ethic and I'm pretty confident I'll be a good blocker."

Using a third-round pick on Hodges certainly carries some risk, but there could be a significant reward if he's able to develop and refine his overall game. And that's not bad for someone who picked up the position less than four years ago. 

"I'm a top tight end," Hodges said. "They're starting to understand it."

Good or better? Why offseason moves are making 2017 Bears better

Good or better? Why offseason moves are making 2017 Bears better

Improvement typically comes in incremental steps, not leaps. And the Bears of 2017, based on what they have done at a handful of positions, the latest being Thursday’s signing of wide receiver Victor Cruz, fit that template.

The clear organizational commitment is to build through the draft, even if injuries have undermined some otherwise apparent upgrades to starting lineups on both sides of the football. But if there is a “theme” to what GM Ryan Pace is doing to muscle up a sluggish roster, it is that the Bears are willing to take flyers on veteran players – with additions like four veteran wide receivers with injury and issue histories – that arguably point to a win-now mindset while draft picks develop and contribute.

Jaye Howard and John Jenkins. Make the defensive line “better?” Than Jonathan Bullard and Will Sutton, probably. But “good?” Mmmmm…..

The game-one tight ends last year were Zach Miller-Logan Paulsen-Gregg Scruggs. Now they’re Miller-Dion Sims-Adam Shaheen (based on a second-round draft choice). “Good?” Maybe, maybe not. “Better?” Obviously, based on Sims alone.

Mike Glennon-Mark Sanchez-Mitch Trubisky. Bears “better” at quarterback? Than Jay Cutler-Brian Hoyer-Matt Barkley, probably. “Good?” Mmmmmm…..

The decisions to sign Glennon and Sanchez to the quarterback depth chart have sparked their shares of understandable cynical skepticism. But Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo were not available in trade, so the Pace decision was to gamble on upside with Glennon over the known quantity of Brian Hoyer (the preference of some coaches) and certainly Jay Cutler, for whom “potential” and “upside” no longer applied.

Add in the aggressive draft of Trubisky and the result was three possibilities of hits on a quarterback (Sanchez and Connor Shaw being combined here as a pair entry in the hit-possibility scenarios). All three were deemed an improvement over Cutler and/or Barkley.

The results may not vault the Bears all the way up to “good” at the pivotal position for any franchise. But “better” is sometimes all you can realistically manage.

Taking a wider-screen look at wide receiver in this context… .

Coach John Fox has cited the need for the Bears to establish the ability to get yardage in bigger chunks. Accordingly, all four of the veteran wideout signings this offseason – Cruz, Rueben Randle, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright –  have posted yards-per-catch seasons of 14 or longer.

All four won’t be on the opening-day roster, but all four offer the promise of major impact. Cruz, Randle and Wright have had seasons of 70 or more receptions, and Wheaton topped out at 53 in 2015 with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice weren’t available, so “good” was hard to achieve in an offseason in which Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal were expected departures long before their exits. But are Cruz, Randle, Wheaton and Wright, with Kevin White and Cameron Meredith, a “better” starting point than Jeffery, Royal, White, Bellamy, etc. of a year ago?

Obviously. But players with even moderately established NFL “names” (like Cruz, Randle, etal.) are typically available for a reason; teams do not routinely give up on talent. And none of the four come without significant shadows on their NFL resumes, whether for injury or other questions.

Cruz missed most of 2014 and all of the 2015 season, and hasn’t played a full season since his Pro Bowl year of 2012.

Randle was described as a head case by scouts and was so bad that he was let go in the Eagles’ cutdown to 75 last year, followed by disparaging comments from those in and around the organization.

Wheaton flashed promise in his 2014-15 opportunities as a part-time starter but played just three games before a shoulder injury landed him on IR last season.

The Tennessee Titans thought enough of Wright, their 2012 first-round draft choice, to pick up his fifth-year option going into las season. But by week 14 he was benched for tardiness and was a healthy DNP in game 16, announcing after the game that he already knew he was not in the Titans’ plans for 2017.

The prospect of the Bears going from 3-13 to “good” borders on fantasy. But if being among the NFL’s busiest this offseason hasn’t propelled the Bears to that level, the results point to “better.” At this point, that’s something,.

How big of an impact will Victor Cruz have on the Bears?

How big of an impact will Victor Cruz have on the Bears?

The Bears inked Victor Cruz to a one-year deal on Thursday, adding another receiver to an already crowded corps.

But it never hurts to add a veteran one to a young group, especially with a new starting quarterback.

Cruz is 30 years old and isn't the same Pro Bowl-caliber player he was before missing the entire 2015 season with a calf injury, but he surely has a lot left in the tank and can serve as a great mentor for the Bears receivers.

Just how big of an impact will he have on his new team? See what the SportsTalk Live panel had to say in the video above.