Photo: Paul Hamilton (@pham1717)

Ragland may need to impress Thursday night

LB appears to be falling down the depth chart

Sal Capaccio
August 09, 2017 - 11:27 pm

Bills fans will be watching plenty of things when they see their team on the field for the first time in nine months Thursday night. But, one player I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on specifically will be linebacker Reggie Ragland.

The 2016 second round pick has not only not taken a first-team rep all of training camp, he found himself on the third-team this past week, With Gerald Hodges playing MIKE linebacker with the second unit behind Preston Brown. That's not a good sign for Ragland, who was not drafted by this front office regime, is one year removed from ACL surgery, and ultimately may not be the right fit for head coach Sean McDermott 4-3 defense. Of course there's still plenty of time for all of that to change, but until wide receiver Anquan Boldin signed with the team on Tuesday, Ragland’s struggles and drop down the depth chart were becoming the story of training camp. 

McDermott has made mention several times of the 23-year old’s recovery from knee surgery and that he is still ultimately considered a rookie by this staff. After all, he was injured only two weeks into last year’s camp. He's also mentioned that this is a new scheme for him not only as a pro, but even going back to his college days at Alabama. The Crimson Tide played some 4-3 while Ragland was there, but not with the same responsibilities as he has in McDermott's system.  So, really, the LB has never really played in this particular scheme and what it requires from his position.

But that's something that may continue to hinder Ragland, even if he is completely recovered. He just might not be a fit for this defense. It's one that relies on athleticism at the linebacker spot. Guys who can drop and cover in space. Ragland is known as a down-hill thumper, not someone who will turn his hips and run with receivers or tight ends. In one particular practice I saw him lined up at MLB in an 11-on-11 red zone drill. He was far too late getting over to cover tight end Nick O’Leary, who beat him cleanly to the end zone for an easy touchdown. Those are the things that get noticed by coaching staffs that can't happen.

Hodges was signed to primarily play WILL linebacker. He had been backing up Ramon Humber there. But now he's getting time both at WLB and MLB, in place of Ragland. And when Hodges is there instead, you can see the clear difference in coverage ability between the two.

Some have speculated the team could look to move Ragland before making final roster cuts. Find a team running a 3-4 and get an asset in return. However, it would be extremely unlikely the Bills would get anything close to their return on investment of the second round pick they spent on him last year.  

If this keeps up, could Ragland actually be released? I think that’s pretty unlikely. He’s too good of a football player to just toss away already. And that would still depend on what the team feels about rookies Tanner Vallejo and Matt Milano. For what it's worth, Vallejo has been working as the backup SLB to Lorenzo Alexander, but also working in at WLB. Milano has only really been playing WLB on second or third teams. Both have been playing special team’s roles in camp.

But even if Ragland is ultimately not quite the fit right now, there are still plenty of things to consider for the Bills when making decisions at the position. One of them is looking beyond 2017 and what the linebacker corps may look like. Brown, Humber, and Hodges are all on expiring contracts. Ragland might be looked at to step right in next year.  McDermott and GM Brandon Beane may just want to give him another full year of recovery and time learning the system.

That’s why Thursday feels like a big night for Reggie Ragland. He may have to start flashing the kinds of plays and ability that made him the 2015 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American for the Crimson Tide. If he doesn't, it will be interesting to see if he even has enough chances to do that in practices or other preseason games going forward.


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