The very first play of Reggie Ragland's very first practice since undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee was a run. As the Buffalo Bills' middle linebacker went to take on a blocker, the knee "kind of popped a little bit."
He knew it was just some scar tissue breaking loose and nothing more serious. But those are the kind of incremental steps that must be taken, the kind of tests that must be passed as he nears the finish line of his long recovery.
For Ragland, though, last Thursday's OTA session at New Era Field was actually more of a return to the starting line of an NFL career that never really had a chance to begin. His rookie season ended abruptly with a torn ACL during last summer's training camp.
Now, he's finding out just how well that left knee has been put back together.
"But at the end of the day, I'm trusting what the doctors told me, (that) my left knee is just as strong as my right one," Ragland told reporters. "So, after that, I'm like, 'OK, cool. I'm trusting it.' So ever since then, I really didn't think about it on the field."
He can't afford to, because there's so much else occupying his thoughts.
Last Thursday's practice might have only been one in a series of low-intensity, non-contact offseason drills. However, it was an important step in Ragland's efforts to re-establish his presence on a team that has undergone considerable change since Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley collaborated to make him a second-round draft pick last year. The former Alabama star has only so much time to win over the new decision-making duo of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane.
Before Thursday, Ragland was limited to being a spectator. It took a little while for him to get used to the accelerated pace of being on the field.
"When you’re out there, everything is moving so fast …," he said. "But it felt real good just to get back out there after like nine or 10 months of just sitting and watching. It felt real good."
After a couple of series, Ragland felt as if he was part of his natural habitat. He was filling gaps. He was dropping into coverage. He was doing pretty much all of the things he has done since he started playing football, but could only imagine doing through the 2016 NFL season.
It was much more simulation than true scrimmaging, of course, yet Ragland couldn't help but feel energized. As long as the offense was running plays, it was his job to help the defense stop them -- or at least go through the motions accordingly.
"Any time you got a 300-and-some-pound man running after you, you’ll always get a little adrenaline rush," he said. "But for the most part, it felt good just getting hands on those guys, and just get guys up off of you and work on your techniques, and getting my techniques back."
Ragland has a new defense to learn. The 4-3 scheme that McDermott and new coordinator Leslie Frazier are installing is dramatically different, in structure and concept, than Ryan's 3-4 for which Ragland was specifically drafted.
At 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, he is larger than the prototypical middle linebacker in the McDermott-Frazier defense. He's also a bit slower. Proving he's a good fit while competing with Preston Brown, who did well in the 4-3 defense the Bills used when Jim Schwartz was their coordinator in 2014, won't be easy.
"It's football," Ragland said. "Football is football. (It's) knowing your gaps and knowing your run fits and knowing your coverage. At the end of the day, it's still football and I feel like I can fit in it, even though I've never been in the 4-3. But I'm going to fit, I'm going to try to make it work.
"Football's always competition. Coming from Alabama, every year is competition. Coach is going to put the best players out there regardless of who it is, if it's me or Preston. But right now I just know I've got to come out here and get myself (ready) and get used to the plays and get everything right, because Preston got a jump start on me from getting all the reps since I've been gone."
During that time, Ragland wasn't just missing the chance to compete and prove he belongs. He was missing something that was precious to him -- being in the action with his teammates, getting the chance to show his skills, demonstrating how well he was paying attention in the meeting room.
Even if it was just an OTA, he wasn't the least bit ashamed to soak it all in.
"Take nothing for granted," Ragland said. "Coming out of the (NFL Scouting) Combine last year, I was on a high – being predicted (to be selected) real high, first-rounder, and then being a second-rounder. But it’s all a blessing, just to get drafted. But now I’m just out there having fun, and just taking it day by day."
More steps and tests await. The Bills' three-day mandatory minicamp begins Tuesday. In about six weeks, they'll open training camp at St. John Fisher.
How does Ragland anticipate he'll react the first time he sets foot on the same field where his rookie season came to a screeching halt a year ago?
"Don’t worry about it, my knee is fine," he said. "Don’t think about it. Just go out there and do what I do, and do what got me here. Just play football. Just be myself."