Talent but Questions at Inside Linebacker

Is Reggie Ragland quick enough to play on third down? Is Darron Lee big enough to play on first and second down? Those are questions the Packers must grapple with if they believe finding a starting inside linebacker is a priority.

INDIANAPOLIS – With Clay Matthews slated to be an outside linebacker with some inside-linebacker duties rather than the other way around, the Green Bay Packers must develop a plan to fill Matthews’ shoes on the inside.

A strong inside linebacker class beckons, with Alabama's Reggie Ragland, UCLA’s Myles Jack, Ohio State’s Darron Lee and Notre Dame’s injured Jaylon Smith all first-round prospects. Of the four, Jack is the only player certain to be off the board, though there’s no guarantee the other three will get to No. 27, either.

As tends to be the case with everyone but cream-of-the-crop prospects at this position, there are major questions. For Ragland, it’s his ability to be a three-down defender. At 6-foot-1 and 247 pounds, there’s no doubt about his ability to stick his nose into a ball-carrier in the run game. Ragland is one of the draft’s heavy hitters, drawing comparisons to former 49ers standout Patrick Willis. While he had only 6.5 tackles for losses as a senior, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus Award finalist had 15 tackles at the line of scrimmage.

What Ragland needs to show during Sunday’s position drills is whether he has the quickness and agility to play coverage. According to longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas, quarterbacks completed only 12.7 percent of passes thrown in Ragland’s area the past two seasons, showing excellent instincts and knowledge of angles in zone coverage. However, he struggled in his one-on-one coverage opportunities at the Senior Bowl.

Coverage is a big deal for the Packers. Matthews did well in that role but Sam Barrington struggled in the preseason and Jake Ryan was beaten for a pair of big gains in a December loss to Arizona. In the dime package, the Packers’ best alternative was Joe Thomas, who wasn’t deemed good enough to even make the final roster but was signed off Dallas’ practice squad in early October.

“I know I can do it,” Ragland said at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday. “I’ve done it this year and I’ve shown people I can do it. It’s really just getting out there and keep proving people wrong, because I know a lot of people think I might not be able to do it. I want to show people I have good hips and I have fluid hips and I’m able to drop and cover and tackle people in space.”

Ragland played middle linebacker for the Crimson Tide this season. He said he stayed on the field in Alabama’s dime defense against Texas A&M and other games. He’s an intriguing option for Green Bay in a role similar to what Matthews played this season, as an inside linebacker on running plays and an edge rusher on passing downs. It’s a role he said various teams have talked to him about.

“Oh, yeah. I feel like I’m talented enough and versatile enough to do it,” following his podium session when asked about Matthews’ role. “Whatever my team needs me to do, I know I have the ability to do it.”

The question with Lee is his size. He checked in at 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds. Lee says he usually plays around 235 but said he didn’t eat a big enough breakfast due to nerves.

“I feel linebackers are changing in the league, to be honest – a lot smaller,” Lee said on Friday. “There aren’t really too many bigger guys. The game is getting faster and you need guys to cover. You’re starting to see that change a lot this year in the league.”

The scale obviously doesn’t lie, but Lee looked more like a safety than a linebacker. He figures to cruise through the drills. There’s no doubt Lee can play the third-down role, with his ability to get deep in zone coverage or turn and run with running backs and tight ends. According to Thomas, opponents threw 34 passes in Lee’s area this past season. Those gained a grand total of 50 yards.

“Sometimes it would be a tight end and sometimes it would even be speed receivers,” Lee said. “I probably have some help here and there a little bit with a safety, but there’d be sometimes I’d have to cover speed receivers.”

However, can Lee hold tough in, for instance, a 30-carry game against the rival Vikings?

“I can play at that weight,” Lee said. “I have really no concerns about it, to be honest with you. As long as I’m able to play fast, that’s all that matters to me.”

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.

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