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Analysis: Bills banking on throwback Reggie Ragland adding Ray Lewis-like bite to defense

To Reggie Ragland, it’s not a criticism, not a slight.

Label him a throwback linebacker. Go ahead and tell him he should've played in a different era.

He loves it.

“It’s a compliment to me because those linebackers back then were very tough, physical guys," Ragland said. "They can call out the defenses and were smart guys, too.”

So here's what we know about Ragland: he was a sledgehammer in college.

On the nation's best defense — and, no, it was never even close — Ragland was the one at the central command center. He operated in a complex defense and excelled with abandon. Last season, he was named the SEC defensive player of the year with 97 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. An instinctive, downhill force, he walloped ball carriers in the hole in a way your grandfather remembers.

Indeed, Ragland packs a punch behind his 6-foot-1, 247-pound frame. (He has played in the high 250's.)

Yet General Manager Doug Whaley said himself last week that athletic linebackers are all the rage today. More and more teams rely on mobile linebackers to keep up with offenses going three- and four-wide. While Whaley asserts Ragland is athletic enough and Ragland himself repeats he's a three-down player, this is the calculated gamble Buffalo made in trading away two fourth-round picks (one in 2016, one in 2017) to move up eight slots and take Ragland.

They're counting on an old-fashioned bruiser bringing this defense back.

As he stepped to the podium Friday, Whaley was beaming with optimism. He tried trading up for Ragland at every single pick in the second round, starting with Cleveland at No. 32.

"He's a winner and he's a leader," Whaley said. "He's going to come in and bring something to this defense that we need and that's knowing how to win.

"We're bringing in winners. Tough, physical, love-football guys."

Watch any game from Ragland, from Clemson's Shaq Lawson and it's hard to argue. They were arguably the two most productive defensive players in the country. And, hey, take a look at the linebacker Ragland replaced in Alabama. C.J. Mosley has 250 tackles and seven sacks in two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. Nick Saban's scheme prepares players for the pro game. When the Bills put Ragland on the board during his visit in Western New York, he was able to repeat everything right back to them.

His hits? Devastating. Ragland cites one collision against Georgia as his favorite, saying he "pounded him perfect." That "him" would be receiver Malcolm Mitchell and that lowered right shoulder has Jack Lambert, Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus written all over it.

Now, Ragland will have to cover the New England Patriots' resident freak-of-nature Rob Gronkowski downfield on a seam route. He'll need to track Matt Forte, a back with 487 career receptions, out of the backfield. His eyes must dart in all directions. Linebackers are flexed out often in today's NFL — that's how the Patriots victimized Seattle's loaded defense in the Super Bowl two years ago.

The Bills are banking that Ragland is athletic enough to keep up. And not just that. Whaley envisions Ragland and 256-pound Preston Brown on the field together with Ragland as the weak-side linebacker. His 4.72 in the 40-yard dash and 31.5-inch vertical leap at the Combine wasn't inspiring — the Bills are trusting the tape on Saturdays.

"We've got two physical linebackers who fit the scheme we're trying to build in Buffalo," Whaley said, "and that's tough physical players."

Added Ragland, “I know I’m athletic. And the Buffalo Bills decided to draft me so they thought I was athletic. So that’s the only thing that matters to me.”

Ragland isn't worried about needing to adapt to a changing NFL, either. That Mitchell hit might draw a flag in Roger Goodell's flag-happy league.

He's not worried. The 22-year-old's words had bite on his conference call.

"Just give me the opportunity so I can show you," Ragland said. "I’m not going to back down for any competition, for anybody. I know there’s a lot of great players in the league. I just have to go in there and show I can play with those guys.”

From afar, he's been keeping a close eye on Ryan's defenses over the years. He loves the physicality, the pressure that drove his groups in Baltimore and New York.

Ragland doesn't hide from in-the-clouds comparisons. He wants to be Ryan's next Ray Lewis.

"He was my favorite player as a kid growing up," Ragland said. "I know if he made Ray into something, I have a chance to be just like Ray. I always wanted to be just like Ray.

"I’m ready. I just have to go in there, do my job. Nothing is going to be handed to me."

It's a risk for the Bills, sure. But after several passive, blase, deer-in-headlight defeats in 2015, hey, why not take a risk?

Take it from Darryl Talley, the Bills great who criticized the team's lethargic play in 2015. The man who rarely tweets dropped a message on Twitter that sent "Bills Mafia" into a frenzy.

"The Bills just drafted the best LB since Biscuit."

Yeah, Cornelius Bennett would do too.

 

 

 

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