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Chiefs LB Reggie Ragland is getting better every week

AP rundown: Week 13

The AP rundown, 5 up and 5 down on the Chiefs

Posted by Arrowhead Pride: For Kansas City Chiefs Fans on Friday, December 1, 2017

With all the talk about the offense and quarterback and losing five of six games and other things that aren’t much fun at all, a pretty interesting (and actually fun!) story has been developing in Kansas City.

And that story is coming for your running back’s head.

When the Chiefs traded a 2019 fourth round pick for Reggie Ragland, my instant reaction was “hmmmmm.” Yeah, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The thing is, I didn’t know anything about Ragland (I don’t follow college football much) other than he played at Alabama and Alabama is good.

Some folks around here and Twitter were pretty excited about the pick because of his collegiate career (quite decorated, as it turned out), but I tend to be a bit skeptical when it comes to reclamation projects in the NFL. I also tend to be skeptical with the whole “oh, with a scheme change he could be way better” argument, as talent generally tends to emerge regardless of scheme.

At this point, it’ safe to say that Brett Veach’s first big move as a GM (it was, after all, a fourth round pick traded, even if it’s not until 2019) has already started to pay off in a big way, helping with glaring weak spot on defense.

Ragland first started seeing action as far back as the Redskins game. Early on, he didn’t seem to be moving the needle much.

My expectations, again, we’re quite tempered given the situation. Ragland is coming off an ACL tear last August, so he essentially lost his entire rookie season. That injury can also linger for a bit with regards to speed/quickness, and Ragland was never a fast LB to begin with. So the Chiefs essentially had a rookie coming off an injury they were trying to plug into the defense as a way to help fix a major issue (the run defense).

As one might expect, it’s taken a bit of time for Ragland to adjust, but over the last month he’s really come on, making some noticeable splash plays against the run. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that during the time the Chiefs run defense (which had been a train wreck for most of the season) has finally started coming around.

Stats don’t tell the whole story, or even most of it, but it’s worth noting how things have shifted lately: over the last three games (against the Bills, Giants and Cowboys WITH Ezekiel Elliot), the Chiefs have allowed 2.8, 3.8, and 3.7 yards per carry to opposing running backs. It’s worth noting that they played two of the best runners in the NFL in that span in LeSean McCoy and Zeke Elliot. Compared to how the Chiefs were faring against the run earlier in the season, it’s been a rather dramatic turnaround.

Of course, some of that can be attributed to Bob Sutton changing some things up schematically (keeping two LBs on the field more consistently, for starters). However, at least the last three weeks a lot of it has been Ragland making plays.

I went back and re-watched the all-22 of the Bills game (Ragland’s best to date in my opinion) to look for what traits he’s showing. And I came away really, really happy (a rarity as of late with regards to the Chiefs).

For starters, Ragland is absolutely willing to play the thumper role, with no fear of contact and a willingness to take on offensive linemen and plug gaps.

We’ve been waiting for years for a linebacker who has both the willingness to be physical up front and the ability to hold his ground in those situations. Ragland has both, and it provides a domino effect on plays where he forces runners to redirect into the rest of the defense.

Ragland has also shown a knack for getting tackles for loss as of late, whether it’s him quickly reading and reacting to the run or him being sent on a run blitz.

While Ragland was at a schematic advantage here, he does a nice job firing into the hole, locating the ball carrier, and finishing with authority.

One thing it seems like Ragland is improving at every week is his reaction time. While there are still plays where he lets blockers come to him, more and more often he’s recognizing run and flowing to the ball before blockers can reach him. There’s been a noticeable change over the last few weeks as Ragland appears to be adjusting to the speed of the pro game (again, keep in mind this is essentially his rookie season).

What’s nice about Ragland, as I allude to above, is that he’s a great finisher as a tackler. For starters, he lays some fantastic direct hits on runners and is physically punishing to play against.

Those kind of hits will absolutely wear a running back down over time. It’s the whole “are you hitting someone or getting hit” mentality. Ragland initiates contact rather than just looking to wrap up and hold on, and because of it (and his impressive strength) he often stops runners dead in their tracks when they meet him and lays hits that are more punishing than what you see from other defenders.

Additionally, Ragland’s strength isn’t limited to times where he has the runner lined up perfectly. He’s got impressive stopping power even when caught at a bad angle, which is rare for non-defensive linemen (Who have the advantage of, you know, being 300-plus pounds and stuff).

Ragland has that rare “it” factor when he hits that’s tough to describe, as though he’s just somehow denser than the guys he’s tackling. It’s the same trait Eric Berry possesses, where for some reason he’ll meet players 20 pounds heavier than him and THEY’RE the ones who go sprawling backwards. I have no idea what it is, whether it’s a leverage issue or a mentality issue or they’ve got just a touch of mercury in their blood or what (that last one probably isn’t true, but you don’t KNOW that), but it’s a great trait to have as a defender. It also allows him to shed blockers that reach him at the second level in ways some linebackers can’t.

So far, Ragland has been a nice addition to the defense. The issue that people have (well, not “issue” exactly) is that Ragland is believed to lack the ability to be a three down linebacker, in that he’s not strong in coverage and lacks the speed to be out there on third and 10 when there are receivers flying all over the field.

To an extent, I think that’s true. You see it reflected in Ragland’s usage even as his overall impact has increased. He’s still coming off the field on obvious passing downs in favor of Derrick Johnson or Kevin Pierre-Louis (who has also seen his playing time go up significantly, something to keep an eye on) on plays where the Chiefs are opting to go with one linebacker.

However, it’s worth noting that Ragland was also out on the field with the nickel defense on multiple snaps against the Bills, and didn’t do anything to make me believe he’s a serious liability in those situations. While his lateral agility doesn’t seem to be great and he doesn’t really look smooth, he’s conscientious about his zone drops (scrambling to get proper depth) and seems to possess a good awareness of receivers coming into his zone. The only issue he has is a tendency to get sucked in by play action, which is something to keep an eye on moving forwards.

When he’s been placed in man situations against a running back, Ragland is at a definite speed disadvantage against faster back. However, he makes up for this by taking solid angles and staying aware of his assignment, not letting runners get to the edge. There hasn’t been a play yet where Ragland has been forced to take on a “chasing” role, where he’d be in rough shape.

Overall, I see a guy with the potential to be out there on passing downs without being a liability and maybe even a strength at times (when asked to fulfill a VERY specific role). I don’t know if I see him ever being a genuine three down ILB, though, which means the Chiefs will have to continue to develop KPL for that role (which it appears they are doing).

As far as Ragland’s speed goes, it’s absolutely true he’s not a particularly fast linebacker.

Now again, it’s important to note that Tyrod Taylor is a very, very fast quarterback who makes most linebackers looks slow in this situation. Ragland underestimated that speed in his angle, which has been rare for him as of late. So this makes the problem look worse than it really is.

BUT ... if I were to diagnose an issue that will prevent Ragland from ever being a full-fledged stud LB, it’ll be the lack of top-end speed (though it has to be noted he closes well when he’s got a runner in his sights). That can be largely made up for with quick recognition and proper angles, but I think it does limit his ceiling.

However, after watching the Bills tape, that ceiling still looks considerably higher than I anticipated thanks to his power, aggressiveness, and play recognition. He has improved at a rather remarkable rate as the season has gone on, which makes me believe that he hasn’t even come close to peaking. This looks like a potential steal by Chiefs GM Brett Veach.

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