Reggie Ragland leads Chiefs' reshaped crew at inside linebacker

Two years into an NFL career, he will asked not only to step up his game but become more of a team leader in the absence of a veteran presence.

Patrick Mahomes? Yes. But there is something of a defensive equivalent with inside linebacker Reggie Ragland.

The Chiefs see Ragland as an essential piece of defense that will feature several new parts, including at his position.

“He’s ready to take the next step,” defensive lineman Chris Jones said of Ragland.

Unlike Mahomes, who played one game as a rookie quarterback in 2017, Ragland appeared in 12 and started 10, and it wasn’t his first season as a professional.

But it was his first action after sitting out his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills. Ragland, a former SEC defensive player of the year at Alabama and the Bills’ second-round draft choice, torn an ACL early in training camp and spent his first pro year rehabilitating.

The Chiefs acquired Ragland for a 2019 fourth-round pick before last season, and he appeared in his first NFL game in the fourth week, against Washington.

Ragland is a run-stuffing linebacker who has faith he can play every down.

“I feel like I am underrated as a cover guy, but as a three-down guy you want to be the main guy out there calling everything, and you want to get the guys lined up,” Ragland said. “I did it in college, I did it in high school, so for me as a player I want to be on the field when it’s crunch time, and most of the time third down is when it’s crunch time.”

Also in the fold at inside linebacker is newcomer Anthony Hitchens, a free-agent signee who spent his first four years with the Dallas Cowboys, where he appeared in 60 games with 48 starts. During this week of volunteer workouts, Ragland and Hitchens have begun getting to know each other. The camaraderie actually started before then.

“I’d been texting with him since I signed here,” Hitchens said. “We actually went to the (Royals) game last Thursday, talked for seven innings, and then we ended up eating after that.”

Improving run defense becomes a priority for a defense that allowed 118 yards per game, which ranked 25th in the NFL. The numbers improved over the final few weeks of the regular season, not coincidentally that’s when Ragland said he had fully recovered from his injury.

“It wasn’t until we got to the Giants game (11th week),” he said, “that’s when my knee was feeling fine it stopped being tender.”

The Chiefs also have second-year pro Ukeme Eligwe and Terrance Smith at the position. Not there is Derrick Johnson, the team’s career tackles leader who hit the free-agency market in February and hasn’t signed.

Johnson may have lost a step last season as he recovered from his second Achilles injury, but he was a leader and a strong locker room presence, traits Ragland will look to mirror.

“Keep studying the game and learn to do it how he did it,” said Ragland, who remains in constant contact with Johnson.

Kevin Pierre-Louis, also part of the inside linebacker rotation last season, also has moved on as the Chiefs reshape a position that will feature Ragland.

“I’m very comfortable now,” Ragland said. “As far as the defense is concerned, I’m more comfortable now.”