Buffalo Bills: What Will Reggie Ragland Do in 2017?

Feb 28, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland participates in workout drills during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 28, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland participates in workout drills during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2016 second-round pick tore his ACL in his rookie year and now Reggie Ragland has to learn a brand new defense. How he’ll respond is a mystery.

What a difference a year makes. When the Buffalo Bills traded up with the Chicago Bears in the 2016 NFL Draft to select linebacker Reggie Ragland, it made sense. Rex Ryan’s defense prided itself on stopping the run, and the Alabama product was made for it.

Need proof? Just look at his draft profile. It’s a bad image, but I can practically imagine Rex salivating at it.

For Reggie, the expectations upon arriving in Buffalo were high. Bills general manager Doug Whaley claimed he would be a starter immediately after drafting him. Coming from a winning program like Alabama, the hope was he could infuse some winning into a city that hadn’t seen a lot of it.

That all changed on August 5, 2016. While participating in training camp, Ragland went down with a knee injury, which was later diagnosed as a torn ACL. His rookie season was over before it started.

It’s hard to speculate how much impact that injury had on the Buffalo Bills 2016 campaign. The Bills ended up starting Zach Brown in Ragland’s place. He had an electric start to the season before cooling off at the end of it.

His performance was good enough to make the Pro Bowl, but the run defense was still poor. Buffalo gave up three 200-yard rushers, including two to the same guy.

That won’t be the case this year, with Brown going to the Washington Redskins. So whether he’s ready or not, Reggie Ragland will be thrust into a starting role. But it won’t be in the defensive system he was brought in to help.

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Head coach Sean McDermott’s defense prides itself on having athletic linebackers that do more than thump at the line of scrimmage. Players like Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers are threats because they can cover zones just as well hit their gaps.

You want defensive players who can be on the field for any play, not just to stop the run.

At first glance, that’s not Ragland’s forte. That same draft profile questioned his speed and questioned his ability to handle man coverage. Analysis like this claims quicker players can beat him to the sidelines. What that means is opposing teams could probably have field days against Reggie with mere screen passes.

To put it simply, it appears Ragland might not be athletic enough to play McDermott’s defense.

That is why coach McDermott’s comments regarding Ragland were so surprising. He compared his linebacker to Kuechly and former Eagles player Jeremiah Trotter, and saw him starting at middle linebacker.

The statement was disputed by others, but it’s a clear indication that the new coach has faith in a player from the previous regime.

But can Reggie actually live up to that sort of praise? He’s viewed as being slower than Kuechly, and coming off a major knee injury might limit his mobility. Combine that with McDermott’s zone-heavy defense requiring speedy defenders (which Ragland is not), and you could be looking at an ugly year ahead.

Personally, I think that McDermott’s comments were a bit of a smoke screen. He knows he doesn’t have the players to fit his scheme yet, but he’ll never say it. Between Ragland, Lorenzo Alexander and Preston Brown, the Buffalo Bills have one of the slowest linebacker corps in the NFL.

It’s a position they’ll probably devote at least one of their six draft picks this year to, but the coach will have to work with what he’s given either way.

Can it actually work?

In all honesty, probably not, for the reasons listed above. But fans can always dream and that unlikely scenario requires several things to happen.

If Ragland is to succeed as a Kuechly-style defender, he’s gonna have to first lose some weight. He’s an inch shorter than the Panthers defender (6-2 versus 6-3), but nearly fifteen pounds heavier (238 vs. 252). Being smaller, yet heaver, is a sure-fire way to be slower.

Shedding some pounds could have to work on his zone coverage skills. One of the ways McDermott built his defense into a top-10 defense is by developing players to have ball-hawk instincts.

That means more than just being able to plug your gap. It requires players to be proficient operating in zones and anticipating where the ball will go. From there, they can follow up with a quick tackle or even an interception. Ragland wasn’t known for that, only having one pick during his four years at Alabama.

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Finally, he’ll need to step into a leadership role and be willing to accept the duties of the play-calling helmet. That responsibility fell to Preston Brown the past year, but the poor play of the defense shows it’s time for a change. It might take a bit for a player that’s basically still a rookie to lead the defense, but Ragland needs to be fearless in that regard.

But if he can’t do all that? Then the Buffalo Bills basically have a good run-stopper that can’t do much else. There’s a place for that, but at that point Ragland is a piece of the puzzle, not a star player.

If that can’t even happen? Then he’s a prime candidate for the trade block.

Sean McDermott is well-respected as a teacher around the league. Besides Kuechly and Trotter, he’s helped players like Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson perform at a higher level. It’s a testament to his ability that he’s developed all those men.

But in Buffalo, he’ll have one of his toughest tasks. Reggie Ragland, a bona-fide run-stopper, will need to be transformed into an every-down linebacker that can do anything. Stay tuned for the regular season, folks. If the Buffalo Bills have a bad season, at least it’ll be interesting to watch.

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What do you think of Reggie Ragland in Sean McDermott’s defense? Leave your thoughts below!