By Mark Eckel, Player Engagement Insider
In the span of a year everything changed for Buffalo Bills linebacker Reggie Ragland.
Selected with the 41st overall pick by the Bills, who traded two fourth-round picks to move up in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the former University of Alabama standout was to be an integral part of Rex Ryan’s 3-4 defense.
It never happened.
Ragland tore the ACL in his left knee during a training camp practice on August 5th2016 and missed his entire rookie season.
“It was very tough, because I’m a competitor. Then coming from Alabama, being able to play at the highest level you can play college football, and then coming to the pros and playing with some great players like (running back) LeSean McCoy and (guard) Richie Incognito,’’ Ragland said. “And then, the GM and everybody has you pegged as a starter and you get out there and you’re playing and it happens. It’s tough, it’s very tough. But I know it happened for a reason and I know that I’ve got to keep getting stronger and keep coming back mentally stronger also.’’
As Ragland returns, the Bills are a different team. Ryan was fired by the Bills before the end of 2016 and has been replaced by former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Doug Whaley, the general manager who drafted him is also gone, replaced by Brandon Beane.
Under McDermott, who employs a 4-3 defensive scheme, Ragland, as he battles back from the knee injury, is expected to be the Bills’ middle linebacker. The same role Luke Kuechly has flourished in with McDermott at the Panthers.
First things first though and that’s getting back on the field for Ragland.
“It felt great just to get back out there,’’ Ragland said after the Bills’ first OTA in which he was a limited participant. “Just to get my legs back up under me. We’re going to take it along day by day. It just depends how my knee feels, but for the most part it feels great. The overtime that Shone Gipson and the (training) staff has done for me has been fantastic. I’m thankful that I’ve got the type of people around me to help me get back.’’
Ragland, 6-2, 252, was part of two BCS National Titles with the Crimson Tide and was a three-time All SEC selection. He was expected to go in the first round of that 2016 Draft, and when he slipped into the second, the Bills made the move up to get him.
A little over a year after being drafted, and less than 10 months after the knee injury, he has a new group of coaches and front office people to impress, as he battles back from that injury that robbed him of his rookie season.
“It’s hard,’’ he said. “But I’m a people person. I’m getting to know the coaches. I’m picking their brains. I’m getting to know them well and it’s going real smoothly. Right now, I’m just doing everything in my control, showing up on time, doing my rehab, asking questions. I’m right beside coach (Leslie) Frazier (Buffalo’s defensive coordinator). I’m talking out loud to myself. I know once I’m back on the field for good, I can control more.’’
From what he’s seen so far Ragland likes McDermott’s defense. And he can’t wait to be part of it.
“Oh, it’s great,’’ he said. “It’s going to let the linebackers move around and eat so I like it a lot. There is some stuff that I’ve still got to get used to because I’ve never played in a 4-3 before, but for the most part I’m getting there, taking my time with it. And I’m just asking all of the questions that I can ask, because it’s different from being out there and then just being in the classroom and just learning it. So, I’m taking my time.’’
Just as he is with his knee.
“When it happened, I felt a couple of pops,’’ he said. “It felt normal. I walked off the field fine, but the doctors told me otherwise. Of course, I was sad. But it happens. Now, I just have to take my time and be smart about it.’’