The Green Bay Packers are neck deep in the Reggie Ragland coverage question.
Ragland plays the one position, inside linebacker, where the Packers without question need immediate help from this year’s draft.
They're looking for a dynamic player to replace Clay Matthews, who’s moving back to outside linebacker. Part of Matthews' replacement’s job description is playing a major role in run defense. But another part is running and covering against today’s spread and matchup-oriented passing games.
Whether Ragland, a standout from Alabama, can do the latter well enough to justify the Packers picking him at No. 27 is one of the team's big questions for this draft.
This week I talked to two longtime NFL scouts about Ragland, and it’s clear they hold him in high regard as a player and defensive leader. But when it came to his coverage skills, there was a lot of “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that.”
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
In the end, both liked him as a pick for general manager Ted Thompson at No. 27 overall, but their endorsements of Ragland’s ability to defend the pass were, shall we say, qualified.
“It’s not the ideal pass-coverage situation,” one said. “But it’s a good move shoring up their base (3-4 personnel) because you’d love to have him inside and Clay (Matthews) outside.”
The other scout started our Ragland discussion by sowing doubt: “The biggest question mark I have about Reggie Ragland is how well he can cover, because you never really saw it at Alabama.”
But after we talked about several defensive linemen (Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson, Andrew Billings and Vernon Butler), outside linebackers (Noah Spence, Kamalei Correa and Leonard Floyd) and another inside linebacker (Darron Lee) who likely are on the Packers’ radar at No. 27, the scout came out with this:
“I’d take Ragland over anybody you’ve mentioned.”
Ragland could go as high as the middle of the first round, in which case the discussion for the Packers is academic. But there’s enough uncertainty about his coverage skills that both scouts think there’s a decent chance he’ll be there at No. 27. One rated the odds at a little better than 50-50.
At 6-feet-1 and 247 pounds, Ragland is a big (6-feet-1, 247 pounds) striker, but his 4.72-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine is unimpressive for a coverage linebacker. And that plus game video where he didn’t cover as much as scouts would like raise reasons to wonder if he’d be the best pick for the Packers, based on the way today’s game is played and is evolving.
Forty times are far from everything, but you’d much prefer a coverage linebacker to run faster than Ragland did. According to the National Football Post’s Tony Villiotti’s research from the 1999-2013 scouting combines, the cut-off for the fastest 10 percent of inside linebackers was 4.59 seconds, for the top 30 percent was 4.65 seconds, and for the top 50 percent was 4.68 seconds.
So Ragland didn’t quite make the top half.
As a counterpoint, San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman ran 4.70 coming out, and he’s an every-down linebacker who has been first-team All-Pro four times. But Bowman also is an exceptional change-of-direction athlete. That’s not as obvious in Ragland at this point.
Ragland also is tougher than many to grade in coverage because on passing downs he often played as an outside rusher with his hand on the ground (2 ½ sacks last season). That option will be available to the NFL team that drafts him, too, though there’s no reason to think they'll use it often.
“It’s more power than it is moves, but you do see him (rush) in the (Southeastern Conference),” one of the scouts said. “… Is he a guy that can be a difference maker doing it? Probably not.”
If Thompson drafts Ragland, it’s safe to say the rookie would be an immediate starter and nickel linebacker, alongside either Jake Ryan or Sam Barrington. The nickel is defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ predominant personnel package (in the range of 65 percent to 70 percent of the defensive snaps).
But how much better than average Ragland would be in a nickel role is a legitimate question, as is whether he’d cover well enough to be the lone linebacker in the dime. I wouldn't draft him at 27 unless I was pretty sure he could be that dime guy. But maybe Thompson disagrees and is prepared to use a later draft pick on another player for that role.
“(Ragland) actually was a pretty good basketball player coming out of high school,” the other scout said. “He’s a little bit of a deceptive athlete, so he does have some ability to stay on the field (on passing downs). He’s not the ideal coverage linebacker, but he’s pretty athletic and he’s sharp. He’s a smart dude, so he can get other people lined up. He doesn’t put himself in tough situations. Pretty instinctive guy.”
The other first-round inside linebacker who still might be on the board at No. 27 is Ohio State’s Lee (UCLA’s Myles Jack figures to be a top-10 pick).
Lee is the opposite of Ragland and physically is more the prototype for today’s NFL: Small (6-feet-0 ¾, 232 pounds) but with a running back’s speed (4.47-second 40). That’s similar to what Seattle All-Pro Bobby Wagner ran (4.46 seconds), though Lee isn’t as stout as Wagner, who was 241 pounds coming out of college and is listed at 245 now.
On Lee, though, the scouts were decidedly split.
One would draft him ahead of Ragland.
“I’d go with the better athlete,” the scout said.
But the other didn’t like Lee much at all.
“I think scouts have fallen in love with him because of his ability to run,” the scout said. “There are times he steps up into the hole and he’ll miss the play. Now, if you have a play going to the outside and he’s on the opposite end of the line, he can run from the backside and make a tackle.
(But) You see times when they blitz him and he gets to the quarterback and doesn’t finish the play. He’s the guy I had the most problems with watching him play. You do see athletic ability, you do see the burst, speed. He’s a long, rangy looking player. But he doesn’t make the plays at him as well as he makes the plays going away from him.”
This draft also has a wild card at inside linebacker, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith. He was on course to be a top-five pick but tore his ACL in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl and suffered nerve damage that has put his career in doubt.
Smith reportedly won’t be able to play in 2016, and it’s anybody’s guess how well the nerves will regenerate in the future. Teams might start thinking about drafting him in the middle rounds, depending on their doctors’ prognosis.
As a cautionary tale, South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore was a highly regarded running back who sustained a bad knee injury in 2012. His initial injury was more severe – he tore every ligament in his knee and dislocated his kneecap – so this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. But teams knew he wouldn’t play in ’13. San Francisco still drafted him in the fourth round, and in November ’14 he retired.
“Somebody takes a shot and sees if they can rehab (Smith),” one scout said, “see if it responds and you’re able to get something out of him. Harder to believe they could do that on the first day or even the second day (i.e., the first three rounds).
“It’s a crapshoot. Nobody really knows. There have been people in the past (with his issues) who’ve responded and are playing, and other people it never has responded.”