This is the first in a 10-part series previewing some of the biggest questions the Buffalo Bills will have to answer when training camp begins July 27 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.
All NFL training camps feature roster battles in one form or another, but it’s not every year a marquee position like starting middle linebacker is up for grabs.
That’s the case with the Buffalo Bills in 2017, though, as Reggie Ragland and Preston Brown will battle it out for the job as the team’s defensive signal caller.
Through the spring, it was Brown who held the starting job, but Ragland was making his way back from a torn ACL that cost him his rookie season and didn’t allow him to become a full participant until the last few practices of June. He’s expected to be 100 percent when the Bills report to St. John Fisher College for their first practice July 27.
"My knee is fine," he said last month. "Don’t think about it, just go out there and do what I do, and do what got me here."
In other words: Game on.
Coach Sean McDermott hinted at a competition between both players all the way back in March.
"I know Reggie from tape in college and what he can do," McDermott said at the NFL owners meetings. "And what innately comes with that position is the leadership skills. He possesses those leadership skills to get us lined up, be the antennae, so to speak, of the defense.
"I'm not out there and over the years, when you look at that position, in this system – guys like Luke Kuechly, guys like Jeremiah Trotter – that can check the defense, get us in and out of bad calls, bad defenses, set us up for success, that's an important part of that position and Reggie, from what I can tell and what I've observed and been told about him, he has that DNA."
As for Brown, he would "be in that same mold in terms of that middle linebacker position for us, and so very confident in watching Preston last year and over the last couple of years, really, in the different systems he was in. Very productive player. He's a nice fit for us as well. It'll be a fun position to watch."
Brown finished sixth in the NFL in tackles last season, and has started 46 of 48 career games. Still, more has been expected from him at times in his career. Former Bills coach Rex Ryan challenged Brown to be more of a vocal leader, and it’s clear from McDermott’s comments that he’ll do the same. In fact, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier did so earlier this month in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio.
"He's a guy who we're counting on to really step up and be a leader for us in our 4-3 scheme,” he said of Brown. “The middle linebacker is so, so important."
Brown says he’s ready for the challenge.
"I’ve been in competition since high school," he said last month. "With all the linebackers, not just Reggie, but whoever it is. We’re all competing to play. I mean, we’re all trying to make the team better.
"Every year you have something to prove,” he said. "We’ve got a new coach, a new system. The best 11 are going to play, so everybody is out here competing and trying to find a spot."
Brown has an advantage in that he’s played middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme before, which is something Ragland hasn’t done. Not that he’s backing away from the challenge.
"I'm a competitor, and I know Preston, he's a competitor, too," Ragland said. "I just got to come out and keep working hard the way he does day in and day out, because he's a very good player and a very smart player.”
While the competition will have a clear winner, it might not necessarily have a loser. That’s because the Bills could move either Brown or Ragland to an outside linebacker position in an effort to get their best 11 players on the field.
"Like I told the coaches, I’ll do whatever they need me to do to get on the field," Ragland said. "If I got to do that, I’ll do that."
“I really don’t have any preference or anything – I just want to play football," echoed Brown. "Whatever I can do to help the team, I’m going to do that."