Atlanta is still developing in their new identity on defense. Dan Quinn preached toughness and physicality leading up to the season and they looked the part through the first few weeks. Quinn and Richard Smith are still trying to bring in "their guys" on defense; particularly at the linebacker position.
The linebackers in Atlanta have been a disaster all season. Phillip Wheeler was brought in midseason to compete for playing time with Paul Worrilow and Justin Durant, and he's been a marginal upgrade at times. It's clear the team sees linebacker as a huge hole, and they'll invest premium resources in the position this offseason.
A player they'll definitely have on their radar is Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland. Ragland, a former highly touted recruit, has been a leader on the Crimson Tide defense over the past two seasons.
His potential transition into the Falcons defense would be seamless. Nick Saban employs a ton of Cover 3 and Cover 6 looks, which Atlanta does as well. Despite being a bigger linebacker prospect (6'2", 252) Ragland is fairly effective in coverage. He's not as dynamic as Myles Jack in this regard, but he can hold his own when asked to match with tight ends down the seam.
When Atlanta has run their Cover 3 looks, an enormous problem has been their inability to "pattern match" down the seams with tight ends. An easy way to beat Cover 3 is by sending four receivers into the three deep zone areas. On the flip side it's fairly easy to defend against these route concepts (four verticals, wheel routes) by having linebackers and safety break their zone and switch to man defense on free running receivers.
Here's a diagram from the Falcons game against the Saints that illustrates four verticals against Cover 3:
Unlike the Falcons current linebackers, Ragland can effectively defend against routes attacking the seams.
This is a play that won't show up on the stat sheet, but it gives nice insight into Ragland's ability to function within single high defenses and run with tight ends in coverage.
He'll make receivers pay for entering his zone too.
Ragland's stability in coverage would allow the Falcons to open up the defensive playbook a bit more. They've attempted to run Cover 4, Cover 2 Man, and Zone Blitz schemes, but the middle of the field is open a large majority of the time with shaky coverage from the linebackers. Nick Saban trusts Ragland with tougher zone assignments and those same skills should translate nicely to the NFL.
On the play below, Alabama breaks the huddle and shows an alignment that could easily tun Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 3 Cloud, or Cover 6. These are luxuries Atlanta doesn't quite have yet, due to the inability of the linebackers in coverage. Attempting to confuse the quarterback pre-snap is a key component to playing championship level defense, but Atlanta's vanilla packages haven't been able to fool anyone in recent weeks.
While Ragland is adept in coverage, his biggest asset is his run defense. Ragland is an absolute terror against the run. He plays with a level of physicality and fortitude that the Falcons need in the middle of their defense. Ragland is a bruiser, never shying away from contact and always looking to knock out his opponents.
Even though he's one of the bigger linebackers in the upcoming draft, Ragland shows nice range and an ability to run sideline to sideline. He's a bit heavy legged, but has enough initial explosion in his lower body that it negates his long speed to a degree. Ragland routinely chases down running backs threatening the perimeter.
If there's one area Ragland could use some improvement it would be taking on blockers coming directly downhill. Ragland short arms blockers entering his path from time to time, but still has a knack for bringing down ballcarriers with unsound technique.
Overall, Reggie Ragland is one of the top linebacker prospects in the draft. He's a tad below Myles Jack when it comes to NFL projections, but Ragland is an immediate plug and play draft prospect. He'll be one of the many, many players Atlanta considers in the offseason as they figure out a way to upgrade their linebacker position.
Stay tuned next week for a scouting report on Clemson safety Jayron Kearse!