MLB bat­tle has chance to be good

In­cum­bent Brown, Ragland ready to go

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Jay Skurski

This is the first in a 10-part se­ries pre­view­ing some of the big­gest ques­tions the Buf­falo Bills will have to an­swer when train­ing camp be­gins July 27 at St. John Fisher Col­lege in Pitts­ford.

All NFL train­ing camps fea­ture ros­ter bat­tles in one form or an­other, but it’s not ev­ery year a mar­quee po­si­tion like start­ing mid­dle line­backer is up for grabs.

That’s the case with the Buf­falo Bills in 2017, though, as Reg­gie Ragland and Pre­ston Brown will bat­tle it out for the job as the team’s de­fen­sive sig­nal caller.

Through the spring, it was Brown who held the start­ing job, but Ragland was mak­ing his way back from a torn ACL that cost him his rookie sea­son and didn’t al­low him to be­come a ful l par­tic­i­pant un­til the last few prac­tices of June. He’s ex­pected to be 100 per­cent when the Bills re­port to St. John Fisher Col­lege for their first prac­tice July 27.

“My knee is fine,” he said last month. “Don’t think about it, just go out there and do what I do, and do what got me here.” In other words: Game on. Coach Sean McDer­mott hinted at a com­pe­ti­tion be­tween both play­ers all the way back in March.

“I know Reg­gie from tape in col­lege and what he can do,” McDer­mott said at the NFL own­ers meet­ings. “And what in­nately comes with that po­si­tion is the lead­er­ship skills. He pos­sesses those lead­er­ship skills to get us lined up, be the an­ten­nae, so to speak, of the de­fense.

“I’m not out there and over the years, when you look at that po­si­tion, in this sys­tem – guys like Luke Kuechly, guys like Jeremiah Trot­ter – that can check the de­fense, get us in and out of bad calls, bad de­fenses, set us up for suc­cess, that’s an im­por­tant part of that po­si­tion and Reg­gie, from what I can tell and what I’ve ob­served and been told about him, he has that DNA.”

As for Brown, he would “be in that same mold in terms of that mid­dle line­backer po­si­tion for us, and so very con­fi­dent in watch­ing Pre­ston last year and over the last cou­ple of years, re­ally, in the dif­fer­ent sys­tems he was in. Very pro­duc­tive player. He’s a nice fit for us as well. It’ll be a fun po­si­tion to watch.”

Brown fin­ished sixth in the NFL in tack­les last sea­son, and has started 46 of 48 ca­reer games. Still, more has been ex­pected from him at times in his ca­reer. For­mer Bills coach Rex Ryan chal­lenged Brown to be more of a vo­cal leader, and it’s clear from McDer­mott’s com­ments that he’ll do the same. In fact, de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Les­lie Fra­zier did so ear­lier this month in an in­ter­view with Sir­iusXM NFL Ra­dio.

“He’s a guy who we’re count­ing on to re­ally step up and be a leader for us in our 4-3 scheme,” he said of Brown. “The mid­dle line­backer is so, so im­por­tant.”

Brown says he’s ready for the chal­lenge.

“I’ve been in com­pe­ti­tion since high school,” he said last month. “With all the lineback­ers, not just Reg­gie, but who­ever it is. We’re all com­pet­ing to play. I mean,

we’re all try­ing to make the team bet­ter.

“Ev­ery year you have some­thing to prove,” he said. “We’ve got a new coach, a new sys­tem. The best 11 are go­ing to play, so ev­ery­body is out here com­pet­ing and try­ing to find a spot.”

Brown has an ad­van­tage in that he’s played mid­dle line­backer in a 4-3 scheme be­fore, which is some­thing Ragland hasn’t done. Not that he’s backing away from the chal­lenge.

“I’m a com­peti­tor, and I know Pre­ston, he’s a com­peti­tor, too,” Ragland said. “I just got to come out and keep work­ing hard the way he does day in and day out, be­cause he’s a very good player and a very smart player.”

While the com­pe­ti­tion will have a clear win­ner, it might not nec­es­sar­ily have a loser. That’s be­cause the Bills could move ei­ther Brown or Ragland to an out­side line­backer po­si­tion in an ef­fort to get their best 11 play­ers on the field.

“Like I told the coaches, I’ll do what­ever they need me to do to get on the field,” Ragland said. “If I got to do that, I’ll do that.”

“I re­ally don’t have any pref­er­ence or any­thing – I just want to play foot­ball,” echoed Brown. “What­ever I can do to help the team, I’m go­ing to do that.”

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