Wait for roster decision well worth it for Bengals rookie free agent

Undrafted free agent defensive end part of team’s 53-player roster

CINCINNATI -- Darius Hodge was all smiles Wednesday walking into the tunnel at Paul Brown Stadium for his first media session since finding out he made the Cincinnati Bengals’ 53-man roster.

The undrafted free agent defensive end said he got the call at 6:13 p.m. Monday, almost a full 24 hours before NFL teams had to make the final big round of cuts to get to their 2021 roster. The Bengals played their preseason finale Sunday, and Hodge felt like Monday was dragging on before he got the good news.

“Oh it was definitely a blessing,” Hodge said. “I was waiting for that call all day, seeing what news is going to be. Once I got that call and coach told me, it was a blessing. I called my mom, my grandma and told them ASAP. The work’s just starting. It’s time to really get to it.”

The Bengals made more roster moves Wednesday, claiming cornerback Nick McCloud, a rookie college free agent signee who was with Buffalo this preseason, and defensive end Wyatt Ray, a second-year player who has spent time with Cleveland, Houston, Buffalo, the N.Y. Jets and most recently with Tennessee.

To make room for the two waiver claims, the Bengals terminated the contract of six-year veteran wide receiver Mike Thomas and waived first-year wide receiver Trenton Irwin. The team has room for one more addition to the practice squad after signing linebackers Joe Bachie and Keandre Jones, cornerbacks Tony Brown and Winston Rose, safety Trayvon Henderson, tight ends Thaddeus Moss and Mason Schreck, defensive end Noah Spence, guard Keaton Sutherland, wide receiver Trent Taylor, defensive tackle Renell Wren, and halfbacks Jacques Patrick, Pooka Williams and Trayveon Williams.

Hodge had an uphill battle trying to make the team.

After the Marshall University product didn’t get drafted, the Bengals signed him as a linebacker, but then ultimately found he had a knack for the pass rush. During training camp, they swapped him to an edge role where he surprised the first preseason game with 1.5 sacks, a tackle for loss and five quarterback hits.

“I think it was an eye-opener for the coaches because they didn’t see what I could do,” Hodge said. “But they put me in the right position to showcase my talent. I take my hats off to them, for sure.”

Hodge had played some on the edge at Marshall in third-down situations toward the end of his college career, but still was playing linebacker on first and second downs and that was what he figured he would be doing with the Bengals based on initial conversations with them.

It was a quick transition, he said. During one of the helmet-only practices, the Bengals put him up against offensive tackle Isaiah Prince and the two went back and forth for a while. After that, the coaches told him he was going to be a defensive end.

That ended up being the best for everyone, especially with rookie third-round pick Joseph Ossai out for the year and a big hole to fill in the plans for rotation on the edge.

“I know I came in open-minded,” Hodge said. “I just wanted to put it all out on the table, do what all I could do and let them decide because at the end of the day I can’t decide nothing. So I mean I just had my mind open to any and everything at that point.”

Hodge put an exclamation point on his preseason Sunday, making another sack and tackle for loss and adding two more quarterback hits in the finale. But a missed sack at the end of the game on a Hail Mary that put Miami ahead stayed in his mind as a possible deal breaker.

Then there also was an off-field incident to consider. Hodge was arrested in July on an assault charge from two years ago when he allegedly repeatedly hit a man. Because the incident pre-dated the commencement of his NFL career, Hodge faces no scrutiny under the Personal Conduct Policy for the alleged assault but should he become involved in any future incidents, the past allegations could be used to enhance the punishment imposed by the league.

Hodge said he had told coaches about the incident during pre-draft interviews and knew it could impact his ability to earn a contract.

“Obviously, it was a bad decision, but I mean, when I came out, they already knew about the situation,” Hodge said. “It was more like how everyone else would look at it cuz I mean, I already told them the story. They know what happened, they know everything, so it was really how everyone that didn’t know what really happened, how they would take it, and really, how would that jeopardize me making this team?”

Hodge said he was “scared to death to make that call” when he was arrested, but the coaches were on the same page and it was something he just had to overcome with his play on the field and in practices. He appreciated the Bengals were able to look past his “bad decision.”

Getting the call to find out he made the team was nervewracking, too, he said. Afterward, he celebrated with some teammates at YardHouse, a restuarant near PBS.

“It’s crazy,” Hodge said. “I got that phone call at 6:13. I was still nervous at that point. I just kept thinking positive that whole time still. Once I got the call, it was really exciting, really exciting. Tears of joy, for sure.”

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