We are down to the front seven on defense in our underappreciated team.
I struggled with how to do this, frankly. Alabama’s defense has been so flexible of late, while in earlier years it was a base 3-4 that operated increasingly out of the nickel as the game became more passing-oriented. With the game’s evolution we have seen a tremendous change in what the front seven is being asked to do.
So, I propose a modest suggestion: we’ll break this down into three separate groups:
1. The pass-rushers — which can constitute any position along the front seven, edge rushers to gobbling up quarterbacks from the defensive tackle spot.
2. Run-stuffers — primarily inside linebackers and defensive tackles, although Alabama has had some great players on the edge that devour running games.
3. Pass defenders — There are players that, even along the lines, can affect the passing game: getting interceptions, having the ability to cover down the field, and in breaking up passes.
But, I’ll still limit these to seven total position players, so that we can keep a functional starting 11. With that in mind, let’s get to the pass defenders that weren’t quite appreciated for how good they were.
Jarran Reed, Defensive Lineman
The 6’4”, 315-pound Reed was a stud coming out of Goldsboro, NC. The four-star held offers from every team in the Deep South and along the Atlantic Coast. He was the No. 13 overall player and the No. 2 defensive tackle in his class, behind Gerald Willis. But, alas, he was also a qualifier casualty, and spent the first two seasons at Hargrave and East Mississippi CC. Reed committed to Alabama out of JUCO, and came to campus in the fall of 2014, where he was a Day One Starter.
Playing in 13 games that season alongside A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Williams, Reed was an all-around monster, showing the ability to move inside and outside. He recorded 54 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss. Reed registered 8 QB pressures and picked up a sack. The next season was similarly productive: 57 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 7 QB pressures, and another sack.
But, where he quietly stood out was in his ability to defend the pass. Reed’s awareness was off the charts — playing on the defensive line, he batted down 9 passes in two seasons. And, flexing outside to cover backs and tight ends, he had the speed and skill to record 7 PBU/PDs.
When he was selected in the second round by the Seahawks, the only knock on his game was his ability to seal the deal and register sacks. But during his rookie year, he recorded more sacks than he did in his college career. And last season he was a hoss, picking up 10.5 more and earning himself a splashy, big time contract.
We sometimes forget just how versatile and fleet Jarran was for a defensive tackle. His 40 times won’t wow anyone (5.31), but his 10-yard split is insane (1.08), and at that position, the ability to defend passes inside 10 yards is a skill that pays handsomely (two-years, $23 million, going into this season). It is also testament to how talented that defensive line was that Reed never even earned so much as an All-SEC nod.
Reggie Ragland, Inside Linebacker
Reggie Ragland is the prototypical, old school downhill run-stuffer. The knock on his game was that he wasn’t fast enough to go sideline to sideline, or that he’s too big to cover backs and tight ends. That conventional wisdom would hold true if you had not actually watched him play.
Reggie is a big dude, perhaps the last of the monstrous thumpers that we’ll see in the middle for a while: 6’2”, 252 pounds. The nation’s No. 1 ILB coming out of Madison (AL), his Tide commitment was so steadfast so early, few schools even offered. And unlike a lot of Freshman linebackers, Reggie’s mental acuity was also so good that he was able to see significant playing time early. By the time Ragland earned a starting job as a Junior in 2014, he had already played in 15 games, recorded 25 tackles, shared in a sack, and forced a fumble.
When he finally got on the field full-time, we saw what a remarkably talented, all-purpose player Ragland was in fulfilling those traditional Mike duties: he got the defenses called, he diagnosed running plays outstandingly, he had the strength to defeat lead blockers, he was more than fast enough to shoot gaps and blow up plays, and he showed a surprising amount of lateral quickness for his size.
Productive doesn’t fully cover the next two seasons. As a Jr. and Sr., Ragland recorded 195 tackles (89 solo), he missed just one tackle in his collegiate career, he forced 3 fumbles and recovered 4 more. He also had 4 more sacks.
But we also discovered that the sure-tackling big man could not be picked on in the passing game. In his junior and senior seasons, Ragland became a force to be reckoned with in pass defense as well. He had 10 PBUs at the inside linebacker position, registered an interception, and took another one to the house. Run-stuffing middle linebackers simply should not be that good in pass defense, even less should ones that weight north of 250 pounds be able to do all the things Ragland could.
Deservedly, he was a Bronco Nagurski finalist in 2015, was a first-team back-to-back All-SEC linebacker. He was a Consensus All-American in 2015 and was the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Not having the human missile speed or anger of Rashaan Evans or Reuben Foster, nor the all-cerebral production of Demeco Ryans, nor possessing an inner DB hidden inside a linebacker’s frame like C.J. Mosley, Ragland just did everything so well that you ask of a middle linebacker, that we forget how good he actually was covering the pass.
An injury and coaching change in Buffalo got Ragland’s career off to a slower start than he’d like. Then, he was traded to KC, where Andy Reid and the Chiefs never quite figured out where to put him or how to use him — he played three positions in three seasons. This offseason, he signed with the Detroit Lions, a team badly in need of run defense and sporting a nice defensive line for the purpose, so he may have finally found a home in the pros.
Up next: The Run Stuffers