By Bryan Dietzler
The greatest need for the Bears going into this offseason is at the inside linebacker position. The Bears struggled with that position during the 2015 season as injuries and ineffective play hampered the unit. Now, with starter Shea McClellin done with his contact and most likely not coming back and Christian Jones not playing as well as the Bears had hoped, they are in a bit of a quandary when it comes to the inside linebacker position. They need to get some help there this offseason or they will struggle there next year.
The 2016 NFL Draft has several solid linebacker prospects in it that the Bears could draw upon and find some talent to help fill the holes they have at the position. Right now, many experts consider Alabama’s Reggie Ragland the best linebacker in the draft. He comes from a strong program and has proven, repeatedly that he is a well-rounded player that could step in and start right away.
Should the Bears decide to choose Ragland if he is available when they pick at number 11 in the draft it would be interesting to get an inside look at Ragland. In this posting, we are going to look at the strengths and weaknesses of this captivating player and see what makes him tick. There is plenty of detail about Ragland himself and what kind of player he is as well as a look at how he might fit with the Bears.
Ragland has a ton of upside and potential for a player at his position. He took over when Alabama star linebacker C.J. Mosley left the team for the NFL and the Crimson Tide didn’t seem to see any drop off from Mosely to Ragland. When looking at the upside that Ragland presents, scouts notice that he has good size for the position. Ragland stands at six feet two inches and weighs 252 pounds. He has a large frame and is built to be an inside linebacker. Ragland is very tough against the run thanks to his physical nature and is one of the better run stoppers in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Ragland is a good tackler both in space and in traffic. He takes solid first steps towards the ball carrier and has the closing speed to close quickly and put a big hit on the runner. He is a very physical tackler, wraps up well, drives, finishes tackles, and is very strong at the point of attack. Ragland can take on blockers working off blocks well using his balance and anticipation of blocks. He sheds blocks easily at times and can avoid blockers when moving his feet. He has good, powerful hand usage that allows him to violently push blockers off him and beats blockers with a steady flow to the football.
Ragland has a strong physical presence and he is very tough when playing on the inside or the middle of the defense. He has the size and strength to stand up to the tough every down play in the NFL at a high level. He shows good instincts for the position and can locate the ball getting a jump on where the ball is going. He can find the ball quickly post snap and can diagnose plays. In pass coverage, he has good route recognition and has the ability to recognize route combinations. He also reads the quarterback, which allows him to diagnose plays quickly. While in pass coverage, Ragland can read and react making changes in direction that allow him to get to the receiver quickly and not let them gain too many yards. Receivers over the middle better be wary of Ragland as well because he can stick close to them and lays the lumber when they catch the ball.
Some other positives that Ragland has include his having a high football IQ. He is very smart when it comes to the game and plays with a level head. He can play sideline to sideline and has decent range. Ragland stays square to the line of scrimmage and doesn’t get cut off much from making plays. He has pass rushing skills as well as he was utilized as an edge rusher while in college. He is a true leader on the field as well as in the locker room and was an inspiration to his teammates.
While at Alabama, Ragland was a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award (given to the country’s top linebacker) and he was voted the SEC Defensive Player of the Year last year. In addition, after a move to the middle linebacker position, Ragland was named All-SEC First Team and was a unanimous selection for First-Team All-American.
There are some drawbacks to Ragland however and here are a few to talk about. When it comes to pass coverage, which linebackers are often asked to do, Ragland does a much better job moving downhill than he does in reverse. With that, he never really had to open or flip his hips to turn and run downfield with a receiver, tight end or running back. He played zone, for the most part, in college and in the NFL (playing a middle linebacker, which is where he is most likely to go in a 4-3 defense or he will play on the inside in a 3-4) he will have to cover backs, receivers and tight ends. If he is unable to do that he will most likely not be in on passing downs and this will hurt his draft stock.
Still talking about pass coverage, while Ragland is fast he doesn’t appear to have the needed speed to cover receivers down the seams of the defense. As Alabama ran a zone coverage scheme last year he had problems with losing receivers when they got behind him in that type of coverage. Finally, he was a little stiff when covering man-to-man and grabbed at receivers too often. When it comes to range, Ragland doesn’t have ideal range and will get beat to the corners by faster running backs and he doesn’t have the range that some of the other linebackers in the draft do.
It has been observed that Ragland has good speed but not great speed and doesn’t have that explosive first step. Overall, he’s not an elite athlete but makes up for it with his skill and ability. When it comes to play action passes, Ragland has a tough time diagnosing that particular offensive play and he can get caught out of position and thus be unable to make the tackle. He is also, at times, a little slow to react to play action and that is a drawback.
When it comes to taking on blockers Ragland does struggle with bigger blockers at times and he gets outworked then driven back away from the play. When it comes to rushing the passer, he isn’t as well adept at getting in on blitzes or when coming from the standard defensive end position. Finally, a few of the other drawbacks that Ragland has include being overly aggressive on his angles and having problems breaking down in space. In addition, when he hits the ball carrier, he tends to go in without wrapping up tight and his form can be a little off.
Overall, Ragland looks like he would be a better fit in a 3-4 defense than a 4-3. He looks like he’s a much better inside linebacker than an outside linebacker and needs to play where he can stop the run and not have to rush the passer so much (although he could still be used in blitz packages). The Bears operate a 3-4 defense so Ragland would be a decent fit.
Ragland could come in to the Bears defense and be a starter at one of the two inside linebacker positions in his first year. He has the skill necessary to be able to upgrade the position from where it was at last year and he would provide a spark needed to get the unit playing better. Anyone would be a better upgrade at the inside linebacker position compared to what the Bears had last year.
With a good set of workouts and a solid combine, Ragland could end up being the top linebacker in the 2016 NFL and that might mean that the Bears may miss out on him at number 11. Still, he could fall to the Bears and be a welcome addition to the defense and a player that could step in and start right away for the Bears making their defense and their play at linebacker better. The Bears should show some interest in him and if they think he’s the right fit, draft him.