With the addition of Paxton Lynch to the Steelers’ roster, the No. 3 quarterback spot on the depth chart has become a subject of intrigue for many fans.
Lynch’s athletic ability and powerful arm led him to be a first round draft choice in 2016 by the Denver Broncos, and while his talent hasn’t necessarily diminished, he was never able to put it all together in the NFL, being released by the Broncos, and later the Seahawks, en route to Pittsburgh.
Despite being a consensus first round bust, Lynch’s talent and pedigree has kept him in the NFL as a tantalizing pipe dream of a prospect, with hopes that something will finally click for him and allow him to live up to his first round billing.
Fans have embraced Lynch’s potential as well, with many already penciling him in a spot on the Steelers’ final roster in 2020.
But are we forgetting about Devlin Hodges?
The duck-hunting Samford product had a vastly different experience entering the NFL, missing out on any draft fanfare and instead making his way into the Steelers’ training camp as a undrafted free agent in 2019.
Hodges beat out Brogan Roback for a spot on the 90-man roster and played well in the preseason. However, he was waived during roster cuts in August, only to find his way onto the Steelers’ practice squad, and then 53-man roster, following an injury to Ben Roethlisberger.
Hodges found himself starting after an Earl Thomas hit knocked Mason Rudolph unconscious versus the Baltimore Ravens in early October. The rookie quarterback impressed in limited playing time despite the loss, and started the next week at the Los Angeles Chargers in place of an injured Rudolph. Hodges led the team to a win, and resumed backup duties to Rudolph in the following weeks against the Dolphins, Colts, Rams, and Browns.
Mason Rudolph was benched against the Bengals in week 12, and Devlin Hodges made a reappearance - rallying Pittsburgh back to a victory and two straight wins in the following weeks.
“Duck” Hodges’ strange blend of underdog, redneck, quarterback, and the newfound savior of Steelers football made him an instant cult hero, and “Duck Mania” was at full strength leading up to a prime time home game against the Buffalo Bills in week 15.
Unfortunately, Hodges’ signature poise came crashing down against a stingy Bill’s defense in a low-scoring loss, and he didn’t recover, being benched for Mason Rudolph the following week versus the Jets.
The NFL wasn’t done with Hodges, however, as Rudolph injured his shoulder against New York, thrusting Hodges back into a starting role. Duck played slightly better, but failed to make an impact, leaving Pittsburgh winless in their final two games against New York and Baltimore.
Hodges’ abysmal end to the season left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths, but his brilliance earlier in the season shouldn’t be forgotten. Duck sparked some life into what had become a dull team under Mason Rudolph, and managed to lead the Steelers back into playoff contention. He had his share of struggles near the end, but many quarterbacks had a difficult time against the Bills and Ravens in 2020, and the Jet’s defense certainly wasn’t a joke, either.
2019 was Hodges’ first year in the NFL, and he was still learning to play on the NFL level like every other rookie signal-caller. However, due to Hodges’ below-average athleticism (for an NFL quarterback, that is), the fact that he is still developing seems to have been lost on many fans, but Duck hasn't reached his ceiling quite yet.
We may see a much-improved Devlin Hodges in 2020.
Paxton Lynch, on the other hand, entered the league four years ago as the 26th overall pick by Denver. Over a three year stint with the Broncos, Lynch slowly fell further and further down the depth chart, being overtaken by the likes of Trevor Siemian, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, Chad Kelly, and Kevin Hogan.
Throughout his career in Denver, Lynch enjoyed the occasional start, mainly due to the injuries of those ahead of him. He played in his last regular season game in 2017, but underwhelmed for the most part, leading to his release less than a year later.
The Seahawks swooped in and signed Lynch a few months later, and despite a solid preseason, he was cut in favor of Geno Smith during final roster cuts.
Lynch found his way to Pittsburgh’s practice squad in 2019 following the Roethlisberger injury in September, and then was promoted to the active roster after Rudolph’s injury.
What’s interesting to note is that Lynch, who had been with the team for nearly 15 weeks, might of had a chance to overtake Hodges on the depth chart during December, but never did. Hodges’ poor showing against the Jets, paired with Rudolph’s injury, could have led the Steelers to start Lynch versus the Ravens in their week 17 game, but they stuck with Hodges.
There’s the possibility that the Steelers were trying to save their offense from yet another quarterback change, or maybe Lynch wasn't fully acclimated to the system yet, both of which are valid reasons - however, after nearly an entire season, were the Steelers still higher on Hodges than they were on Lynch entering a pivotal game at the end of the year?
We may never know, but it’s clear that the Steelers had enough confidence in Hodges to lead them into one final game that season.
It’s ironic that Lynch and Hodges, who are the polar opposites of one another, are both in the same spot job-wise at this point in their careers. Lynch is a tall, athletic first round pick who has never been able to assimilate into the next level, while Hodges, the undersized UDFA with questionable arm strength, has managed to defy the odds thanks to his mental game, not necessarily his physical gifts.
Both of their career paths will converge this year as they battle for the #3 quarterback slot behind Mason Rudolph.
There’s no doubt that Lynch’s athleticism will be a tough opponent for Hodges, but Lynch has been beaten out by less exciting prospects before. Chad Kelly was 2017’s Mr. Irrelevant (the closest you can get to being a UDFA without actually being one), and managed to beat out Lynch in Denver, while the Bronco’s signing of Kevin Hogan, a fifth round pick who hasn't done much in the NFL, was what ultimately pushed Lynch off of the Bronco’s roster.
All of this isn’t to slight Paxton Lynch, but to show that he isn’t some unbeatable obstacle for Devlin Hodges in 2020. It won’t be surprising in the least if Lynch manages to claim a spot on the roster this year over Hodges, but it’s important to remember the fight is far from over.
All Devlin Hodges has done since entering the league is defy expectations: from simply making it into an NFL camp in 2019, to finding his way into the preseason, and then the 53-man roster, and finishing off the year by holding his own as a starter in the biggest football league in the world.
Devlin Hodges has proved us all wrong before.
And he might just do it one more time.