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Bills make loud statement about defensive improvement

In case there was any doubt, the Buffalo Bills issued the loudest statement possible through the first three rounds of the NFL Draft that they’re determined to make their defense better.

Embarrassed by last year’s free fall from fourth to 19th overall in the league, the Bills continued the reconstruction project that began with Thursday night’s selection of first-round outside linebacker Shaq Lawson from Clemson by making Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland and Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington their second- and third-round selections Friday night, respectively.

“We made a concerted effort last year for offense, we improved it,” General Manager Doug Whaley said. “This year, we made a concerted effort for defense, and we’re looking for improvement.”

The Bills landed Ragland after moving up from the 49th to 41st overall spot in a trade with the Chicago Bears. They gave the Bears their fourth-round pick this year and their fourth-rounder in 2017.

“We would have taken this guy 19 (where Lawson was chosen),” Whaley said. “That lets you know how high he was on our board.”

The 6-foot-1, 247-pound Ragland said he was “very thankful and blessed” to play for Rex Ryan.

“Man, he is going to put me in a position to be successful on the field and I am very thankful and blessed to be with him because I know he is a great defensive-minded coach,” Ragland said.

Whaley said Ragland would start at inside linebacker next to Preston Brown.

“We’ll have two guys that are defensive players that play football well,” Whaley said. “I think a lot of people think (Ragland) is a true ‘Mike,’ but we feel he can play ‘Will.’ And with Preston at ‘Mike,’ I think we’ve got two physical linebackers that fit our defensive scheme (that we’re trying to build in Buffalo. And that’s tough, physical players.”

One thing the Bills’ top two picks have in common is medical issues. Lawson’s stock was believed to have dropped because of concerns over a shoulder injury he suffered as a freshman. ESPN has reported that he eventually will need surgery, but Lawson said that wasn’t true. Ragland was found to have an enlarged aorta during a medical examination at February’s NFL Scouting Combine. Whaley said the Bills’ medical staff had no concerns about it.

“I didn’t know anything about it until I got to the (Combine) and they ran some tests and they said I was fine,” Ragland said. “I still went to a specialist after the (Combine) to see if I was fine and she said I was fine.”

In 53 games career games at Alabama, Ragland was credited with 222 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, one interception, and four forced fumbles.

Despite Whaley’s excitement over being able to get Ragland in the second round, most NFL scouts see the former Crimson Tide standout as a solid, though not sensational, player. They generally believe that Ragland possesses ideal size and strength to be an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. His speed isn’t overwhelming (he ran the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 4.72 seconds), but he’s a good overall athlete who is strong at the point of attack, sheds blockers well and is an extremely good tackler who will sometimes make highlight-reel hits.

Ragland gets high marks for blitzing and does a decent job rushing off the edge. His lateral movement and agility are impressive, making him effective against outside rushers. He does a better job in zone pass coverage than man-to-man. He needs to improve his ability to anticipate plays, although his reaction is good.

“He’s a thumper,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “He’s a guy that, really in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, would’ve been a top-10 pick, guaranteed. But coverage ability is going to be something (to watch). How effective will he be in coverage in the NFL?

“We know he can get after the quarterback. You can move him around a little bit. He’s got some versatility there, but how he plays moving backward – not forward – is the concern with Reggie Ragland.”

The Bills made it three defensive players in a row by selecting Washington with their third-round draft pick, 80th overall. In 48 career games for the Buckeyes, the 6-foot-3, 301-pound Washington was credited with 170 tackles, 29.5 for loss, and five sacks. He also is credited with three pass defenses, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

Whaley said Washington, who received a strong endorsement from new Bills defensive line coach John Blake, would compete for a starting spot and has the versatility to play inside or outside depending on the game plan. NFL scouts like his ability to get to the quarterback and like his power, but they say he has shown a tendency to be slow to respond to misdirection plays and doesn’t always display the fullest effort in pursuing the ball.

“This guy brings pass-rush ability to us,” Whaley said. “We thought he was one of the top interior pass-rush defensive linemen in the draft. We didn’t expect him to be around in the third. We’re very excited to have him.

“He’s got some stuff he’s got to improve on. We feel, against solo blocks, he’s fine. He’s got to get technique-sound more on side blocks and taking on double-teams.”

Washington said his pre-draft meeting with the Bills was the best one he had, and that Ryan had told him the team was “probably” going to draft him. He said he was honest with team representatives in talking about his arrest for soliciting an undercover officer in a prostitution sting that resulted in his being suspended from the Fiesta Bowl. Washington called it a “mistake.” Whaley said Washington “admitted it, he owned up to it” and that the team is comfortable with the “support system” he will have in place on the Bills.

“Coach Blake talked to me a lot about things that he wanted to help me improve on, and I’m very excited to play for the Buffalo Bills and work with Coach Blake,” Washington said. “I’m ready to go in and play whatever position they need me to play.”

When the final day of the draft begins at noon Saturday, the Bills will have four choices: one in the fourth round (a compensatory pick), one in the fifth, and two in the sixth.

Whaley said from the fourth round on, the Bills would show more flexibility as far as targeting needs over how players are rated on their board. They could focus more on offense, going for a quarterback (Michigan State’s Connor Cook is still available). They might also have their eyes on a wide receiver and an offensive tackle. Safety is another position the Bills could address.

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