When Reggie Ragland first arrived in Kansas City in late August, he was not sure how he’d be received.
Sure the Chiefs’ front office believed in him, and that meant a lot. But Ragland, a second-year pro from Alabama, knew that in certain NFL locker rooms, young players aren’t necessarily embraced: veterans, protective of their jobs, sometimes view them as threats instead of teammates.
“Coming out of college, you heard stories about cats being mean to the younger guys, or not trying to help them,” Ragland said.
Fortunately for Ragland, that had not been the case in Buffalo, the team that drafted him a year ago and ultimately dealt him to Kansas City.
And it did not take him long to see that would not be the case in Kansas City, either, as the Chiefs placed Ragland’s locker next to 35-year-old Derrick Johnson, a respected two-time All-Pro who is one of the team’s longest-tenured — and most genial — players.
Four months later, Ragland would emerge as a terrific complement to Johnson in the middle of the defense, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound fire hydrant whose physicality and run-stopping prowess was a welcome addition to a run defense that has improved as the season’s gone on. That fact is not completely unrelated to Ragland’s steadily improving play as he returns to form following a torn ACL that wiped out his rookie season.
“I give a lot of credit to D.J., man,” said Ragland, who is eighth on the team with 44 combined tackles; Johnson is second with 71. “He’s helped me develop into a player and man off the field, also.”
But no one knew at the time that Johnson would play such a role, least of all Johnson. The Chiefs had already traded for another inside linebacker — Kevin Pierre-Louis, who plays Johnson’s “Will” position — and Johnson might’ve wondered if Ragland’s arrival meant he would be phased out sooner than later despite being the team’s all-time leader in tackles.
Johnson, however, isn’t a jealous sort. It simply isn’t his way to be stingy with the vast football knowledge he’s accumulated over the past 13 seasons.
So when Ragland — whose strong football character was a primary reason general manager Brett Veach dealt a 2019 fourth-round pick to acquire him — first introduced himself, whatever awkwardness that could’ve otherwise existed between the two never took root.
Instead, a friendship blossomed. A shared interest in movies helped. In fact, it was a quote from one of their favorite films — the 1995 film “Friday” — that let them know they were essentially kindred spirits.
“I’m always quoting a movie — that’s my thing,” Ragland said. “I love to quote movies. I was saying something from “Friday,” and he chimed in on it and finished my sentence. And then we just fell out laughing.
“Ever since then, we’ve been clicking.”
Johnson laughs at the memory, calling Ragland the kind of film buff that keeps you on your toes.
“I’m the same way,” Johnson said.
But while the two may share an appreciation of Hollywood films, they’re also quite different in some meaningful ways. Ragland’s voice is a lot louder than Johnson’s, and he talks more than him, too.
“He’s never had a bad day,” Johnson said with a chuckle.
The third and fourth things Johnson noticed about Ragland, aside from his chattiness and love for movies, were his humility and willingness to listen.
Johnson has played next to a lot of “Mike” inside linebackers in his career, and he has played the position himself. His second Achilles tear a year ago robbed him of some of his cat-like quickness, but as a 13-year veteran, Johnson typically knows what’s coming on every play. He doesn’t want to be the grumpy know-it-all veteran, though, so he offers his suggestions as advice, not orders.
“DJ’s great that way,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton explained.
That doesn’t mean that all of his past “Mike” linebacker partners have been as attentive.
“I’ve been through a lot of ‘Mike’ backers, a lot of guys that come in and come out,” Johnson said. “And it’s like, ‘You’re not listening.’”
Shortly after Ragland arrived, however, Johnson soon realized the youngster might be a different breed. He watched Ragland work diligently to apply his film-room advice to the practice field.
“I saw him making mistakes and I tried to simplify it, like, ‘Hey, when they do this, do this — period,’” Johnson said. “And he’s like, ‘OK, I appreciate you.’
“We got out there on field during practice, and he did it. And I’m like, ‘Wow.’”
To Ragland, paying attention to Johnson is elementary.
“Man, anytime you’ve got a potential Hall of Famer in the same room as you, of course you’ve got to listen to what he says,’” Ragland said with an incredulous laugh. “He’s got over 1,200 tackles, the most tackles in franchise history, so why not listen to a guy like that?
“He’s got more knowledge of the game than I do, so I try to soak in everything he speaks.”
That attitude is an indication of how much Ragland cares about football, and why internally he’s viewed by the Chiefs as a potential team captain, provided he continues to improve. Ragland has gone out of his way to study the habits of other successful defensive teammates, too, such as outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, who have each made multiple Pro Bowls and become All-Pros.
“I might talk a lot, but I observe a lot,” Ragland said. “All the big dogs in this locker room, I observe and see how they react and move.
“So I try to copycat what they do, but I put my own spin on it. So I see 50 (Houston) always getting in the pool in there and running? I get in the pool and run. Little stuff I see them do to prepare themselves, that’s what I want to do.”
Ragland added that he’s “blessed” to be with the Chiefs, considering how helpful all the team’s veterans — not just Johnson — have been. He says that seems to be a part of the team’s culture under coach Andy Reid.
“I always try to say little stuff, like, ‘Man I appreciate you guys, love you guys, man,’ and they’re like, ‘Ugh, stop being sensititive,’” Ragland said with a laugh. “But I always try to say I love these guys, man, because it’s a brotherhood, and to win football games, you’ve got to be like brothers.
“You’ve got to joke with each other, you’ve got to pick up each other, you’ve got to be serious, you’ve got to be able to tell each other, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’”
Johnson has that covered for Ragland. The two even make it a point to watch extra film together during the week, which Johnson still has to do — despite his many years of experience — since opponents’ tendencies often change.
“I keep him young,” Ragland said with a grin.
To be sure, the two are putting in plenty of extra work this week for their Wild Card-round showdown against Tennessee at 3:35 p.m. Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. The Titans are a physical, old-school team built upon running the ball and stopping the run, which basically means it’s the type of game Ragland should thrive in.
And if he does, you better believe he’ll be thanking Johnson for his mentorship afterward.
“I’m very thankful to have a guy like that (here), a future Hall of Famer,” Ragland said. “All that’s left is to get him a ring now.”