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Ragland face of Bills' failed defensive plan

The plan was supposed to work out so much differently.

Reggie Ragland was the second of three major defensive pieces the Buffalo Bills selected at the top of last year's NFL Draft. He was earmarked as an immediate starter along with first-round choice Shaq Lawson, and third-rounder Adolphus Washington.

They were the collective face of Rex Ryan's emphatic signature on his defense and on his team.

Then, it all blew up.

First, Lawson, the former Clemson standout expected to be a dominant edge rusher, wasn't able to get beyond rookie minicamp without a chronic shoulder issue requiring surgery that caused him to miss the first six games of the season. His snaps declined as the year progressed. Then, Ragland, the former Alabama standout expected to be a difference-maker at inside linebacker, suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp. Washington, from Ohio State, did start at defensive end from Day One, but his play tailed off.

With one game left in a 7-9 finish, Ryan was fired. He now can only watch from a distance to see how his grand plan and the ultimate impact the "Big Three" have on it all plays out.

Maybe the most intriguing element is Ragland. Of the trio, he was considered the most specific fit for Ryan's 3-4 defense. As the Bills search for Ryan's replacement, there is speculation they might either end up with a defensive coordinator (such as former Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley) who uses a 4-3 scheme or a head coach with a defensive background (such as Carolina Panthers DC Sean McDermott) who also uses a 4-3.

Does the thought that the NFL career he has yet to begin will be with a different coach employing a different defense than the one for which he was drafted leave him discouraged?

"No, I'm not" discouraged, Ragland said. "Whoever my coach is, I've got to build a relationship with him, regardless of who it is. So I'm really not discouraged.

"I see myself, wherever he needs me to be, I'm going to play to the best of my ability. The scheme doesn't matter. The schemes really don't matter. If you're going to come in, whatever the coach asks you to do, you go do it."

Ragland never got that chance in 2016. Zach Brown, signed as a free agent, wound up taking his place and performing exceptionally well for most of the season. He finished second in the NFL with 149 tackles.

Brown was an ideal fit in Ryan's scheme. But as one of the Bills' 24 free agents, there is a distinct possibility he won't return.

If the Bills give up on the 3-4  which was in place the past two seasons as they had back-to-back 19th overall rankings after ranking fourth with a 4-3 look in 2014  Brown almost assuredly would be gone.

But moving on from a second-round pick who has yet to play an NFL down is different story. Ragland insists he will be able to handle whatever scheme the Bills use.

"I don't care if it's 4-3, a 3-4, it doesn't matter to me," he said. "I'm going to come in and do my best, whatever the coach needs me to do. That's always been me my whole life.

"Knowing me, I'm a competitor. I'm going to find a way to get on the field. So it doesn't matter what the coach has me doing, I'm going to find a way. If I've got to work my tail off to get on the field, I'm going to do that. I've had people doubting me my whole life and I've always proven them wrong. And I'm going to keep proving people wrong."

Ragland's knee is expected to be fully recovered and allow him to take part in offseason and preseason drills.

He's looking forward to the chance to get back on the field, but insists that he'll do so with no regrets about his lost rookie season.

"It was rough at first," he said. "But then, after a while, you realize it happened and I've just got to come back and make sure I'm ready to go for next year. So whoever our coach is, I've got to be ready and I can have no letdown."

Ragland disputes the widely held notion the Bills are a mess, searching for a new coach and a possible replacement for starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor after their 17th consecutive non-playoff season.

Players have been outspoken about a general lack of accountability within the locker room, with tardiness for meetings and other signs of dysfunction.

"I wouldn't say it was a mess," Ragland said. "Some things just didn't work out the way they're supposed to work out. But everything's not always going to go the way it's supposed to go, so you've got to learn from it. You've just got to go back to the drawing board and keep putting yourself in a position so it does work out. So eventually we're going to get it done. And we are."

For the time being, he has a welcome diversion. Ragland plans to be in Tampa, Fla., to support his alma mater for Monday night's national championship game between Alabama and Clemson.

"I feel like we have a good shot," he said. "We've been the best team all year, and if guys come out and do what they're supposed to do on the field and jump on Clemson, I think we've got a good shot. Clemson's a good team, too, but we'll see when Judgement Day comes."

He smiled. Judgement Day might yet still be arriving for Ragland and others who were part of a grand plan that blew up.

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