Alabama

Despite First-Round Setbacks, NFL Draft Helps Show Alabama’s Approach Evolving

May 4, 2016

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was an interesting exchange that ESPN analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay had during a joint conference call with reporters on Monday, when discussing why one of the former University of Alabama players dropped to the second round in last week’s NFL draft.

Specifically, they were commenting on defensive lineman Jarran Reed, who had been almost universally projected to be a first-round pick.

McShay: “I think he fell to 49, in the second round to Seattle, because if you don’t develop him as a pass-rusher he may just be a one-down player. I think that was a theme this entire draft.”

“[Teams are thinking] I’m not going to use a first-round pick on a player who might only be on the field for one out of three downs. So that’s the issue, but I think Reed has more tools than people think as a pass-rusher and Seattle got one of the steals of the draft.”

Kiper: “One more thing about Jarran Reed, he plays as hard as anyone. Effort, hustle …”

McShay: “Yes. It’s not just taking on blocks and eating up space, he gets off of blocks and goes and makes plays. He’s fast on a straight line for his size.”

They probably could have said the same thing about A’Shawn Robinson, who everyone knew can pass-rush as he had 5.5 sacks as a freshman defensive end before sliding inside more, and nine for his career.

There was a similar talk with linebacker Reggie Ragland and his ability to effectively defend in pass coverage at the NFL level. Combined with an ill-timed report about having an enlarged aorta (which shouldn’t affect his career) he dropped into the second round as well before Buffalo traded up to snare him.

“I can be a three-down linebacker,” Ragland subsequently told WGR Radio (h/t Chris Brown, BuffaloBills.com). “I did it. I played all three downs in my last year.”

“Against Texas A&M I played the ‘mike’ the whole game, the inside backer covering backs and tight ends. Against other teams I played outside and played all three downs. I rushed and dropped from the end position. I can drop and I can cover. I don’t know why people feel that way.” 

Buffalo general manager Doug Whaley disclosed afterward that the Bills had a first-round grade on Ragland, while Reed and Robinson had the misfortune of being in a draft that was loaded with defensive linemen.

Actually, the more telling draft picks from Alabama came after them with cornerback Cyrus Jones to New England in the second round and running back Kenyan Drake by Miami in the third round.

Those sent a message that speed has never been more important in the NFL, something that Alabama already figured out and has been building toward.

For example, last year Alabama made an unprecedented move by moving two cornerbacks to start at safety, which Saban deemed risky because he didn’t know how they’d hold up against physical teams like LSU and Arkansas.

Although, it was in part due to having depleted numbers at safety and trying to get the best players on the field. The other factor was speed and having players who could go sideline to sideline.

That’s not to say that Alabama wouldn’t recruit a hard-hitting safety like Landon Collins or Mark Barron again—it would in a heartbeat—but it’s hard to argue against Eddie Jackson making six interceptions and returning two for touchdowns. 

Previous to that, Alabama made a shift in recruiting linebackers after Trey DePriest was considered one of the nation’s top prospects in 2011 and Ragland in 2012.

While dealing with so many pass-happy, no-huddle tempo offenses, Alabama learned that it had to get faster, especially in the interior where slower linebackers could be exposed. Since then the corps has gotten much faster with the likes of Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Christian Miller. 

“He’s improving a lot,” linebacker Ryan Anderson said about Miller, who is on the verge of earning a lot more playing time. “He’s already a long kid, can rush the passer, he’s fast, he’s quick. He’s working on some of the other stuff, stopping the run and bulking up, stuff like that. He’s going to be a good player.”

Williams has already shown he can get to the quarterback, with 10.5 sacks last season. He just has to show he can handle the physical toll of being an every-down player.

Moreover, Alabama moved Rashaan Evans from outside linebacker to inside linebacker during the spring. He responded in a big way and led all players with 17 tackles during the Crimson Tide’s spring game.

Evans might have been playing against the second-team offense on A-Day, but he still seemed to be everywhere.

“He brings a lot,” Foster said. “He brings quick. He can get to the ball much faster, so that’s a win.”

Consequently, Alabama is set to have its fastest defense ever, and probably its fastest team. If so, everyone will see the difference in next year’s draft, which could potentially be nothing short of historic. 

“Man, that guy flashes,” McShay said about Williams. “Like the spin, club move he used for that one sack [against Michigan State], he was an absolute terror.”

“If he can duplicate or build on what he did, Tim Williams is a top-five pick,” Kiper added. “He’s like a Khalil Mack, that kind of player.”

Mack was the fifth overall selection in the 2014 draft.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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