Legends are crafted from accomplishing feats that create an air of mystique and awe. NFL defenses from the great Chicago Bears or Pittsburgh Steelers created indelible moments now observed as legend. Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, Derrick Thomas – all linebackers that are studied as the foundational godfathers of fear amidst the fresh fall air. As all linebackers learn how to play the position that is synonymous with fear, many learn the requirement to instill that fear into offenses. Reckless aggressiveness must take over.
No coach in the college ranks demands or teaches reckless but succinct football more than Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide. In a trade with the Buffalo Bills, the Kansas City Chiefs acquired Saban’s golden boy of fall in hopes of resurrecting the power potential on display. Reggie Ragland film study epitomized striking fear in offenses at Alabama, and with contemporary, intangible coaching can turn into a functional model of an NFL linebacker.
Reggie Ragland Film Study– A Present to the Kansas City Chiefs Coaching Staff
Accomplishments at Alabama
Heralded as one of the best inside linebackers in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ragland was drafted by the Bills with the 41st overall pick in the second round. His Alabama pedigree was a bright spot on his record. Leading a Saban defense demands advanced fortitude and mentality. The Bills scouting department was anticipating coaches could transition Ragland to the NFL by instituting chess level mastery with his aggressive streak.
During his tenure at Alabama, Ragland was known as a powerful, attacking linebacker. He would commonly be spotted stepping into the hole, opposed to waiting for running backs. He was an every down distraction for the offense. When he made mistakes, they were made with full speed, as Ragland played every down with full speed.
Ragland could have transitioned to the NFL in 2015, but opted to spend another year at Alabama so he could obtain his degree and play for a championship caliber defense. He was the third Alabama player to earn unanimous All-American notice, joining Cornelius Bennett and Derrick Thomas. He was the 2015 SEC defensive player of the year, as well as a finalist for multiple national awards.
Film – Good Traits
Ragland displayed a full suite of run stuffing and pass rush ability during his tenure at Alabama. There was no question he would be a top NFL prospect, as his old-school mentality shot off the charts. His nose could be found with the football play in and out.
Some of Ragland’s best plays came in defending sweep and counter runs. Whether the run was sent to the strong or weak side of the ball, Ragland could be found chasing back toward the football. During the 2015 NCAA Championship game against Clemson, he chased down quarterback Deshaun Watson when the offense opted to extend plays.
Against the Wisconsin Badgers, Ragland constantly met running backs at the line of scrimmage. Further, he was fast enough to get past offensive lineman on wide plays. Hence, he could play the compass of the field; no matter the play offenses ran, Ragland found a way to the football.
In pass coverage, Ragland was formidable in zone. Although he lacked explicit technique (which will be addressed later), he could still run with most tight ends and running backs. He used intrinsic physical traits to combat while in zone coverage.
The best ability he possesses, however, is his fit-to-run. Linebackers must be able to fit on lineman when taking on running plays, and his understanding of how to fight with angular leads created additional holes for his teammates such as Reuben Foster.
Occasionally, linebackers that play with fear in the forefront of their grill fall to the wayside in the modern NFL. As offenses have evolved, technique is demanded with the glory of power. However, Ragland possessed the potential to combine awareness with his golden age mentality for orchestrated technique and dominance.
Film – What Made Saban Upset
The same trait of awareness that makes Ragland’s potential so high, is just that: potential un-tapped. In the Clemson Championship game, he could often be found getting turned outside by offensive lineman. The same problems had been exposed against Wisconsin. When the offensive line landed an extended block on Ragland, he never evolved a swim, rip, or transitionary move to get off the block; he was not a hand fighter at the college level.
Getting turned outside was related to the way he strove into the line of scrimmage. He hit with power, but his angles did not always anticipate exactly what the offensive line was going to do. The mental accruement to land advantageous leverage on a consistent basis missed the mark.
On several plays, Ragland also mismatched his speed of pursuit with the running back. Against Clemson and Wisconsin, he would find the right fit-to-run, but over-pursue and miss opportunities. Fortunately, at Alabama, the defensive front of Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson would often cover for his mistakes.
At the NFL level, linebackers cannot let the entire onus of run stoppage be on the defensive front. The level of talent is much higher, and the Bills did not possess run stopping defensive tackles to cover up for Ragland’s over pursuit. The Chiefs, however, do create a better fix for this as Bennie Logan and Allen Bailey morph Ragland into a quaint 3-4 defense with assistance in run stuffing. No matter, his over pursuit must be resolved quickly.
A lack of technique will also hurt Ragland in the NFL. In college, linebackers can crunch most lineman facing them. In the NFL, the average lineman is the same size. Hence, pure strength must be combined with refined technique and shed tactics at some point in the career.
The matter of technique also extends toward pass coverage. Ragland could play excellent zone coverage due to his physical traits. He would mitigate potential yards by stopping the pass receiver at the point of reception. However, in man-coverage, Ragland could easily be outfought based on wide receivers having technique, and Ragland having zero skills in his tool box to combat deeper routes.
Relying on pop and power leads to pass interference tendencies, and thus a plethora of penalties. That is, if the defender can even stay with the receiver. Ragland’s read and react beyond seven yards often lead to explosive plays for the offense. His spacing between himself and the intended receiver was often lost.
At the line of scrimmage in run defense, Ragland had incredible awareness. However, past those seven yards, the field sped up, and he lost composure and adherence to correct gaps.
The Project in Kansas City
Ragland’s expectations in his first year for the Chiefs must be met with a level of dampened expectations. As of now, his role will be purely rotational. Ragland never displayed his exceptional aggressiveness for the Bills after tearing his ACL in the 2016 preseason.
Recall, only three weeks ago the Bills coaching staff was commenting that he needed to get his burst back. Outside of practice, Ragland has yet to take a snap in the red and white. How prepared and evolved his technique has become is left in the air. First, he must recover fully from the ACL injury. Recovery is more than just the initial injury. It also involves obtaining one’s agility once more.
Yet, at the same time, defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was given a Christmas gift in Ragland. For the Chiefs coaches, Ragland is the ideal linebacker project. Ragland is coming into a new environment without the emphatic notion he must become the future leader of a defense. In fact, he will have some of the best pass rushing linebackers to learn from in Justin Houston, Dee Ford, and Tamba Hali.
Ragland fits better into the Chiefs 3-4 specialized scheme. As an inside linebacker, he can come in and play the run defense he is accustomed to. The front three know on special packages they have a linebacker waiting to stuff the run behind them.
Houston et al will be able to teach Ragland the specialized edge rush moves they use to get after the quarterback. Keeping Ragland in special packages on a solidified defense will allow Derrick Johnson to stay on the field and assist in mitigating Ragland’s weaknesses.
The totality of his impact for the Chiefs is left to be determined for 2017. However, in 2018 and beyond, Ragland could become a blue-chip gift for extending the life of the Chiefs defense.