Ragland could fill big hole at LB for Packers

Ryan Wood
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INDIANAPOLIS - He stuck to a strict diet of chicken and fish. There was no fried food. No wasted calories. Nothing that would add an ounce of fat.

Reggie Ragland had stunned the Senior Bowl in January when he weighed in at 259 pounds. The all-American linebacker was a behemoth patrolling the middle of Alabama’s defense, among the most feared players in college football, but his postseason weight was startling.

“I wanted to drop it and get it down,” Ragland said last week at the NFL scouting combine, “so I changed my diet. I still worked out the same, but I really changed my diet to have a low-carb diet. It really helped me to shave the pounds down.”

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Ragland said NFL talent evaluators never demanded he lose weight. They didn’t need to. He knew what was best for his future. His 259 pounds opened questions he’d never had to answer before.

Could he cover NFL running backs and tight ends? Could he play in open space? The best inside linebacker in college football suddenly had to tackle doubts.

“He’s a thumper,” ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He’s a guy who really in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s would’ve been a top-10 pick guaranteed. Coverage ability is going to be something.

“We know he can get to the quarterback. You can move him around a little bit. He’s got some versatility there, but how he plays moving backward, not forward, is the concern with Reggie Ragland.”

So Ragland stuck to his diet. He ate a lot of vegetables, he said. High-fiber foods. The same discipline he had in the weight room, he brought to the kitchen. Most of his meals were specially prepared for him, Ragland said.

His dedication paid off. When Ragland weighed in Saturday at the combine, he was a lighter 247 pounds. He lost 12 pounds in one month.

“I wanted to get it down for myself,” Ragland said. “That’s not me to have my weight up like that. So after the national championship, I gave myself about a week to really just sit down and chill, and I ended up eating too much. So I had to really grind it to get my weight down.”

Ragland is used to the grind. His toughness is the fabric inside linebackers are made of. He’ll be a dream prospect for NFL teams needing an upgrade in the middle of their defense, including the Green Bay Packers.

Ragland said he expected to speak with the Packers in a formal interview over the weekend. He also met with team personnel at the Senior Bowl. The Packers have good reason to be interested.

They hope to find a three-down inside linebacker who can move Clay Matthews back out to the edge, where the Packers’ best pass rusher can focus on sacking the quarterback.

Whether Ragland fits with the Packers depends on how well he can drop into coverage and play in space. In Green Bay, he would be asked to not only play beside second-year linebacker Jake Ryan in nickel but also be the lone coverage linebacker in the dime.

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Ragland said he played dime linebacker against Texas A&M, among other opponents, last season. He doesn’t understand why his coverage ability has been doubted.

“I know I can do it,” Ragland said. “I’ve done it this year and showed people I can do it. So 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, fluid hips and I’m able to drop in coverage and attack people in space.”

Ragland’s weight loss allowed him to run an unofficial 4.72-second, 40-yard dash at the combine Sunday. He didn’t show great speed, but it was respectable.

Ragland needed to avoid having any lack of speed overshadow his strengths. Whether his 40 time affected his draft stock is uncertain, but he’ll likely be drafted earlier rather than later in the first round. If those doubts are behind him, there’s nothing preventing him from being a high draft pick. Chances are the Packers will have to trade up if they want Ragland in the middle of their defense.

Ragland has the instincts desired from an inside linebacker. His football smarts and ability to recognize plays allow him to always be around the football. He reads offensive linemen stances as well as anyone, reacting off the snap.

Perhaps most impressive, he handled on-field communication for the Crimson Tide defense. Saban’s system is among the most complex in college football. There aren’t many college linebackers who can enter the NFL and call plays earlier in their rookie season. Ragland could be one of them.

“Reggie Ragland to me is a top-20 pick,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “I’m not really worried as much. What you have to do in today’s NFL, you’re in sub-packages 70 percent of the time. So your nickel is a starter. Who are you taking off the field? Are you taking a defensive tackle? Are you taking an inside linebacker? Who’s coming off the field? Reggie Ragland rushes the quarterback well enough, and can cover well enough, that I don’t think he’s coming off the field. So I like Reggie Ragland.”

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Alabama deserves its Linebacker U moniker. There has been no shortage of quality NFL linebackers coming through the Crimson Tide program, especially since Nick Saban was hired as head coach. After Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley and New England’s Dont’a Hightower, Ragland hopes to be Saban’s next inside linebacker to leave a mark at the next level.

Two years ago, the Packers had heavy interest in Mosley. Instead, the Ravens drafted him four picks before the Packers’ first pick. Maybe the pecking order will be more kind this spring.

“I feel like I’m a good player,” Ragland said. “I play hard. I do my job. I come out there every day with the right mindset. I’m a good teammate. I don’t let things frustrate me, and I just try to lead the right way, being a good player and good teammate.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood


Tuesday (3 p.m. CT):  Deadline for teams to use the franchise or transition tag.

March 7-9: Teams are permitted to negotiate with unrestricted free agents.

March 9:  New league year/opening of free agency. Teams can sign free agents.

March 20-23:  Annual league meeting, Boca Raton, Fla.

April 18:  Teams with returning head coaches can begin offseason workout programs.

April 28-30:  NFL draft, Chicago.

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