I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.
The most important thing to remember when you are looking for draftees to select as you form a list of likes and dislikes is the following: You are not drafting schools. That means that no matter how many great RBs that "Running Back U" has put in the NFL, you are only getting the latest one who has no promise of joining the legends before him. Conversely, if a school has produced a couple busts at QB, that doesn't not mean the next one won't be the great one.
For defenders from Alabama, you have to look carefully. As a group, there is no more feared college football defense every year than the Crimson Tide. They teach and play defense very much like a top NFL defense. They fill the draft every year. But, not every Alabama defender plays well in the NFL. We have to evaluate each one individually and carefully. Is he good because he is good, or is he good because he is surrounded by 1st rounders? This is the test.
Further, some guys have household names in the draft community because we have had them earmarked as a top pick for a couple of years. Reggie Ragland is that guy. For as long as I can recall, Nick Saban has assured us that this is a top draft pick and prospect at the next level. Like Rolando McClain, CJ Mosely, and even DeMeco Ryans before him, he will patrol the middle of the field, often with a violent disposition.
What I liked:Ragland is a very large linebacker and has a giant lower body in terms of not being pushed around. He plays with some initial burst and thump. He seems quite composed and sharp mentally and knows what is coming at him. As a defender, often is asked to drop into simple zones, as this is what Alabama asks of him. He finds the ball and plays with very solid instincts and is gifted in terms of sniffing out a screen or a bootleg. He clearly is watching enough film to be sitting on tendencies. This is quite important when finding someone to basically quarterback your defense. Ragland can also play a little defensive end on pass rushing downs as Alabama would routinely line him up at right defensive end. I wouldn't call him a gifted pass rusher, but "capable" certainly fits. He hits and hits hard. He forces fumbles and causes problems. You generally know you have played against Ragland by the end of the day.
What I did not like: Here is the real question about Ragland. Does he have the top end speed that is now required to play linebacker at an elite level in the NFL. I must confess that watching his tape is a confusing endeavor on this front. Sometimes he can get to the corner on guys who are trying to outflank the defense and other times he does not. When a linebacker is 22, you are looking at him at the peak of his speed, so basically, you are looking for a guy who can run like the wind. If your middle linebacker candidate cannot, that generally means that within his first contract, you are getting him off the field on nickel downs. Well, if a linebacker is not a nickel down linebacker in today's NFL, then you have just wasted a 1st round pick. With Ragland, the elite wheels are not always evident. I will be curious to see if his times measure up at the Combine. Beyond that, I do wonder if he fatigues or was playing with injuries, because there are times where he does not seem nearly as aggressive and active as the season goes on. There were times where he seemed content with assuming someone else was going to make that play. I will concede that this might be natural with a team that is always 3 touchdowns ahead in many games, but it did stick out on tape.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys:There is plenty of reasons to believe that the Cowboys are hoping to find a better partner in the middle of their defense for Sean Lee right now than Rolando McClain. In fact, in previous drafts (that predate McClain), we know they fancied Bobby Wagner and Ryan Shazier - 2 very impressive non-pass rushing linebackers to patrol the middle of the field. But those 2 both ran absurd 40 yard dashes (Wagner 4.46, Shazier 4.38) to show they were every down linebackers who can run with anyone.
Ragland runs an estimated 4.7 40-yard dash. That is fast enough, but barely. Unlike centers or guards, inside linebackers regularly have to run 40 yards on a down and that speed difference is going to be a potential issue to keep him on the field in all situations. This isn't to say that he can't be a difference-maker in the NFL, because he does enough things very well that I am sure he has a long career ahead of him. But, it might mean he is not that guy Dallas wants to replace Rolando McClain unless the price drops from that "top half of the 1st round" that many are throwing around at this point. You cannot pay premium prices unless you hope to get 800-900 snaps out of him. And for that, he must be on the field in all situations. This one will be an interesting study.