When the Buffalo Bills traded up to select Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland in the second-round of the 2016 NFL Draft, many fans, analysts and pundits questioned the move. The team already had a “big” inside MIKE linebacker in 6’1” 251-pound Preston Brown, so the decision to add the 6’2” 258-pound Reggie Ragland in a league that is trending towards the passing game was debatable to many. The criticism only heightened after General Manager Doug Whaley stated that he saw Ragland playing the “WILL” or weak-side linebacker position—your typical run-and-chase, coverage ‘backer—after his abilities to stay on the field as a three-down player was contested throughout the draft process. However, both linebackers are ideal fits for the defense that Head Coach Rex Ryan operates.
While both Reggie Ragland and Preston Brown are on the heavier side, don’t let their weight skew your perception of their athletic abilities. For a quick reference, here’s how Preston Brown’s combine numbers stack up against some of the better “cover” linebackers in the league.
While Brown’s 40-yard dash isn’t all that impressive, his agility numbers are impressive and that change of direction ability shows up on tape as well.
Before diving into Reggie Ragland and Preston Brown’s skill-sets, it’s important to understand the responsibilities of the inside linebacker positions within Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme.
Inside Linebacker Responsibilities in Rex Ryan Defense
In most defenses, the “WILL” linebacker aligns to the weak-side of the offensive formation, away from the strength of the offense. However, in Rex Ryan’s scheme, the “WILL” typically aligns to the side of the formation where the tight end or extra wide receivers are. The main responsibility of the “WILL” is to keep the MIKE linebacker clean to make plays.
Both inside linebackers are responsible for gaps and in a 3-4 front, they’ll typically align in a shade over an uncovered gap on the defensive front. Depending on the situation, they’ll be responsible for either one or two gaps on a given play. The linebackers need to be instinctive and have quick mental processing in order to read their keys and filling their gaps in order to prevent a “bubble” in the defense.
In a 3-4 front, the nose tackle is tasked with occupying the uncovered offensive linemen, allowing one of the inside linebackers an easy path to make a tackle in the hole. But, if the nose tackle is unable to hold up against the double-team, the “WILL” backer must be able to defeat the block and make the play or fill their gap and hold their ground until the MIKE pursuit comes to clean up.
It takes an unselfish and a true team-player to fill this role, and Bart Scott thrived in it under Rex Ryan—taking on oncoming guards and blowing up lead-blocking fullbacks or tight ends so that fellow linebackers like Ray Lewis or David Harris could make the tackle and get the national recognition.
Bart Scott explained his role to ProFootballFocus’ Sam Monson, stating
Well, the scheme is that I’m generally always to the bubble. Meaning that I’m always the guy that has the uncovered lineman looking me square in the face with no resistance in front of him. A lot of times, in certain fronts they have guys you need to go through to get to them. I’m easy access. I don’t mind that because I don’t mind the contact.
People can say what they want, that’s not with a line of Pro Bowlers. People say, yeah he played with Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, or Ed Reed. You’ve got to think that they’ve benefited from playing with me, as well. Like I didn’t go in there and take two guys and cave in the tackle or the guard and underhook’em so Suggs could come around or other guys could come around. I love doing those types of things for my teammates.
In today’s NFL, teams aren’t regularly using fullbacks in the running game as more offenses are running inside/outside zone runs, so the inside linebackers also need be capable of scraping over the top and pursuing outside runs.
Furthermore, they need to have the confidence in their play to know when to shoot a gap and make a play, but also have to be able to work as a team in order to contain a cutback by a running back. Reggie Ragland shows the patience and gap integrity in the following play against Tennessee, anticipating the cutback and exploding through the quarterback.
This ability to work in unison is shown in the following three plays from Rex Ryan’s first year as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator.
Reggie Ragland and Preston Brown In Coverage
Rex Ryan’s defense doesn’t ask a lot from his inside linebackers in terms of pass coverage. Their primary responsibilities are to drop into short-to-intermediate hook or curl zones, while occasionally covering running backs to the flats and tight ends down the seam before passing them off to another defender. This is a big reason why I always thought the whole “three-down cover linebacker” argument wasn’t really necessary.
Last season, Preston Brown really struggled, both as a run and pass defender. He allowed 38 catches for 409 yards, with 370 yards coming after the catch as the Buffalo Bills’ MIKE linebacker. However, many fans and analysts seem to forget just how productive Preston Brown was in 2014 as a rookie, when he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ No. 3 coverage linebacker after allowing 36 receptions (2nd-fewest) just 183 yards after the catch (fewest) and a long reception of just 30 yards, while seeing time at all three linebacker positions.
Brown mentioned that many struggles last season were due to over-complicating the defensive scheme with too many checks based on opposing personnel, in addition to the defensive calls coming in late. While we’ll never know the whole story, it does seem a bit strange that Brown went from being one of the best cover linebackers in the league to one of the worst in a span of one year.
Here, Preston Brown runs the seam with Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce—one of the more athletic players at his position—showing that he has the speed and agility to drop into coverage.
He has the speed to run with slot receivers and tight ends on underneath routes in man coverage too, wrapping them up to prevent additional yards-after-catch.
The concerns about Reggie Ragland in coverage were a bit overblown as well if you look at the statistics. Last season he was targeted 46 times, allowing just 7.7 yards-per-completion and 5.0 yards-per-attempt without surrendering a single touchdown.
Reggie Ragland and Preston Brown certainly aren’t the greatest athletes in the National Football League, but they’re the exact type of inside linebackers required for Rex Ryan’s defense. They both are dominant against the run and have enough athletic ability to execute the coverage assignments they’ll be tasked with. The team also signed an athletic weak-side linebacker in Zach Brown, so he’ll also be able to come on the field and help out in obvious passing situations as well. Until we see them on the field first-hand, we don’t know what the results will be, but based on what both Ragland and Brown have shown on tape, I believe they’re both more than capable of being major contributors in 2016.