By moving Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker, the Green Bay Packers might have solved one problem at the expense of creating another.
With Green Bay in the market for an inside linebacker — either a three-down defender or a pass-coverage role player — the Packers probably would jump at the chance of drafting Alabama’s Reggie Ragland when on the clock with the 27th pick of the first round next month. One scout said he could see Ragland falling that far, based on his lack of pure coverage ability. Another scout said Ragland is far more likely to wind up in the top 10 than he is to fall within Green Bay’s range.
Just as intriguing: Is Ragland even a player of prime interest for Green Bay? With Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington, the Packers probably feel pretty good about that duo playing as a run-stopping tandem in the middle of their 3-4 defense. What the Packers need is someone to play pass defense. That’s not Ragland’s forte.
“Reggie’s really got more range than short-area quickness,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who watched Ragland throughout his career in his role as analyst on Alabama’s radio broadcasts. “He builds speed as he moves around. He’s got a good feel for zone coverage.”
Of our top 12 inside linebacker prospects in this year’s draft, Ragland ranked ninth with a completion rate allowed of 64.1 percent, according to the STATS charts at RealFootball.com. He did, however, tie for third with seven passes defensed and right in the middle of the pack with 6.2 yards allowed per pass attempt.
“I know I can do it,” Ragland said at the Scouting Combine. “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.”
As a zone defender or if playing man-to-man against most tight ends, Ragland would be fine in coverage, a scout said. The problem, however, is if Ragland gets matched up one-on-one against an athletic running back in the flat. Then again, the scout said, that’d be a mismatch for most inside linebackers.
“Other than an edge rusher vs. the offensive tackle, it’s the biggest athletic mismatch on the field,” he said.
What Ragland does well is stop the run. There’s not a better inside linebacker in this draft at that phase of the game. While his 102 tackles, 9.5 stuffs (tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage) and 20 run disruptions don’t jump off the page when comparing him to the other linebackers, it’s worth noting that 43 percent of his tackles came within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage. His five missed tackles were the fewest of our top 12 inside linebacker prospects.
“Ragland makes things happen on the field thanks to his range and tackling ability,” said longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas. “He knows how to shorten the field by taking proper angles and has the lateral agility to flow to the ball. He stays square and does a good job of wrapping and securing. He plays at a good pad level and has become an elite, explosive hitter with the pop to drop running backs. The thing you immediately notice on film is his explosion behind his hits, as he generates a lot of pop in his hips. He is one of the most reliable tacklers in the college game and what separates him from others is his ease and ability to adjust and fit in space.”
Moreover, Ragland offers versatility as a pass rusher. While he had only 2.5 sacks, his 14 pressures ranked second among our top 12 inside linebackers, according to STATS. So, even if he isn’t good enough to serve as the dime linebacker, a position manned for most of last season by Joe Thomas and a role the Packers need to fill for the upcoming season, Ragland can stay on the field on third-and-long.
"He's got some pass rush abilities which we didn't really develop here because he didn't play that position for us and we had other guys who sort of did that pretty well for us," Alabama coach Nick Saban said at this month’s pro day. "I think that's an area that people will be surprised and how they'll be able to develop him as a pass rusher as well."
Inside or outside, Ragland will be an immediate starter, leader and defensive quarterback.
"A lot of teams like me playing off the edge," Ragland said, "but they’d love to see me being a true Mike and making all the calls."
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Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.