Ragland can cover in nickel, but well enough?

Ryan Wood
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One thing could block Reggie Ragland from being the Green Bay Packers’ perfect pick in Thursday night’s first round, but it’s the essential requisite for any inside linebacker entering the NFL.

If Ragland is available when the Packers are on the clock with the 27th overall pick, general manager Ted Thompson must determine whether the Alabama linebacker can hold up in third-down pass coverage.

On the surface, Ragland embodies an ideal candidate for the Packers' first-round pick. He’s a thumper between the tackles, an impact player on first and second down. He has the instincts and football intellect of a savvy veteran, responsible for making on-field calls in Alabama coach Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense.

Ragland also is the type of personality Packers general manager Ted Thompson covets. Defensive captain. Lowe’s Senior Class Award finalist. Unanimous first-team all-American.

There is a lot to like about Reggie Ragland.

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Ten years ago, he would have been a top-10 pick. But this is a new game, new league. Spread offenses have changed life in the NFL for a defensive player. So general managers must decide whether Ragland can cover running backs and tight ends. Can he play in defenses that heavily rely on nickel and dime subpackages? Will be he exploited in the open field?

There isn’t a scout who knows Ragland better than Senior Bowl president Phil Savage. The former Cleveland Browns general manager and longtime Baltimore Ravens executive now serves as color analyst for Alabama football’s flagship radio station. Savage watched Ragland develop from the nation’s top middle linebacker prospect in high school to the SEC defensive player of the year last season.

When asked about Ragland’s ability to cover on third down, Savage admitted there are limitations. The question is how severe those limitations might be on an NFL field.

“His zone range is better than his short-area quickness,” Savage said. “What I mean by that is, he builds speed. So if you turn and have him run down the middle of the field in Tampa 2, or have him run down the field to a spot or get depth in the zone and then react from there, I think he’s more than adequate to do that. I think if you’re going to try to walk him out in space, match him up against (speedy Alabama tailback) Kenyan Drake one-on-one as a slot receiver, then that might be a different story.”

The Packers need an inside linebacker who can cover open field in nickel and dime packages, pushing Clay Matthews back to the edge in a full-time capacity next season. They rarely ask dime linebackers to line up man-to-man in the slot. Instead, their assignment is more often running backs out of the backfield or in-line tight ends.

Thompson reportedly coveted Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley before the 2014 draft. In hindsight, there was good reason. Mosley was selected second-team All-Pro as a rookie. His coverage ability is tailored to the responsibilities for modern NFL linebackers.

Savage said Mosley doesn’t have Ragland’s size or physique. He isn’t the thumper Ragland can be against the run, but he’s better in coverage. Savage said Ragland has a better chance to be a three-down player than former Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain.

“Rolando McClain went No. 8 overall,” Savage said, “and I always thought that was a reach by Oakland. Because I was not convinced that he was going to be able to play all three downs. Reggie has just been more consistent – more consistent personality, work ethic, all those sorts of things. I thought McClain was sort of overdrafted. C.J. Mosley didn’t have the thump, or the size or physique of Ragland, but he’s got the cover ability. So he went No. 17 to the Ravens.

“Where does Ragland fit with those two? In today’s NFL, I think I would favor Mosley. I think I would put him at the top, then Reggie, then McClain. He’s in the first-round conversation, and I think he’ll be able to stay on the field. I just don’t think he’s going to make a living in man-to-man coverage.”

Which means Ragland probably isn’t the Packers’ dream first-round pick. No, that would be Ohio State linebacker Darron Lee. Undersized at 6-foot 3/4, 232 pounds, Lee is a freak athlete who ran a 4.47-second, 40-yard dash at the scouting combine. He fits the mold of a modern NFL linebacker, capable of covering speedy receivers in the slot or zone assignments in the middle of the field.

Most analysts believe there is almost zero chance Lee will fall to the 27th overall pick. In today’s game, his athleticism is in high demand. But the Packers might find an athletic linebacker in the second round.

Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland could be available at pick No. 27 for the Packers, but his pass coverage remains a question.

LSU outside linebacker Deion Jones is capable of handling the Packers’ subpackage duties. At 6-foot 7/8, 222 pounds, Jones is undersized to be a traditional inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. But his 4.59-second, 40-yard dash shows the speed was better than Ragland’s 4.72. Savage said some scouts clocked Jones with a 4.4-second 40 at LSU’s pro day.

Jones was a late bloomer, spending only his senior season as a full-time starter. Jones led LSU with 100 tackles last fall, and he’s been mostly overlooked by analysts this spring. But ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. said Jones’ style of play was comparable to Derrick Brooks. He’s an athletic, off-ball linebacker who can make plays sideline to sideline – and hold up in coverage.

"If he can get his weight up to about 225 in this league,” Kiper said, “that would be fine. He can run to the ball. Great sideline-to-sideline speed, tremendous range. He had an incredible year."

Maybe the possibility of drafting Jones with the 57th overall pick in the second round alters the Packers' need to pursue a first-round linebacker, even if Ragland is available. Or Thompson could take the better player at his most glaring need.

Ragland allowed 30 receptions and 231 yards on 46 targets last season, holding opposing quarterbacks to an NFL passer rating of 77.4, according to Pro Football Focus. He had no interceptions and defended only one pass, but he also didn’t allow a touchdown catch.

Savage said Ragland would hold up well in the Packers' nickel defense. It’s unknown how Ragland might do as the lone linebacker in a dime defense. At Alabama, Savage said, Ragland split third-down assignments between rush end off the edge and coverage linebacker, depending on the opponent.

Some teams have wondered whether Ragland might fit best as an edge rusher, but his future NFL home appears to be inside linebacker. Perhaps that home will be in Green Bay.

“To me, he’s a really solid, consistent player,” Savage said. “I like Reggie a lot. I don’t think he’s Luke Keuchly. I don’t think he’s Ray Lewis. I don’t think he’s got that kind of quickness, explosive twitch. But I do think he’s a very, very functional starter in the NFL and will probably play for a long time.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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