The big debate around this time last season was when the Bengals should target a pass rusher, and a favorite candidate amongst both local media and fans was Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett.
There was plenty of smoke in regards to the Bengals interest in Barnett and selecting him with the 9th overall pick, but as it turned out, they didn’t have him graded as a first round player, and decided to wait and see which edge rushers we’re available beyond the first 64 picks. The Bengals ended up with Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson, as they decided to test the depth of the edge rusher class.
The overlying discussion 12 months later surrounds how to address the interior of the offensive line, specifically center obviously. The two centers in this class who have the best chances of going off the board in the first round are James Daniels and Billy Price, who I’ve individually gone over in the past few weeks here and here.
Daniels brings elite athleticism and upside in terms of age and an unfilled frame, and Price is the Rimington award winner with the intangibles and pedigree of a plug and play starter from day 1. It’s safe to say that they’ll hear their names called before the Bengals pick in the second round. So if the Bengals plan on waiting until Day 2 to address their biggest need, like they did last year, who can they expect to be there?
At the end of the 2016 season, both Frank Ragnow and Mason Cole finished their first full seasons starting at center after holding down another position on the offensive line a year before. As an 18 year old true freshman in 2014 for Arkansas, Ragnow was a reserve at center and ended up playing over 200 snaps at the position and more than held his own. In 2015, the Razorbacks moved him to right guard and he thrived there.
Finally in 2016 they settled him down at center and earned Second-Team All-SEC honors and was PFF’s top center. Ragnow could’ve declared for the draft and may’ve been a top 100 pick, but decided to try and get one more productive season at center to earn top of the nation status.
Like Ragnow, Cole saw action as early as possible in his collegiate career. He became the first true Freshman to ever start a season opener on Michigan’s offensive line in 2014, and started at left tackle for all of 2014 and 2015, at 18 and 19 years old. In 2016, he was moved inside to center and took it in stride, earning Second-Team All Big-Ten honors.
The reasons why both Ragnow and Cole, despite impressive resumes in the first three years on power 5 football, didn’t get the buzz that surrounded Daniels and Price was because of their 2017 seasons. Ragnow was playing his best football this past fall, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury that took him out of action for the final five games of the season, and caused him to skip both the Senior Bowl and the Combine.
For Cole, he was moved out of the center spot and back to left tackle in 2017 and his play regressed because of it, damaging his draft stock in the process. He was invited to the Senior Bowl and was rightfully placed inside throughout the week, where he looked like the player from 2016. But the last real film that matters with him is in 2016, so to even the evaluation, we can look at some of Ragnow’s film from 2016 as well. But first, let’s overview their testing results.
Because of his ankle injury, Ragnow did not test with Cole at this year’s combine, but he was cleared to fully participate at Arkansas’s pro day three weeks later, and produced one of the better athletic profiles we’ve seen from a center in recent years.
Ragnow and Cole Athletic Profiles
|Player||Frank Ragnow||Mason Cole|
|Player||Frank Ragnow||Mason Cole|
|Wingspan||78 7/8||78 3/4|
|Arm Length||33 1/8||32 1/8|
|Hand Size||9 3/8||9 5/8|
|40 Yard Dash||4.99||5.23|
|Vertical Jump||33 1/2||23 1/2|
Cole’s height weight and wingspan are all more than acceptable for a center, but they don’t call Ragnow “Frank the Tank” for nothing. At Arkansas he played just around 315 pounds and was very good at blocking in space for that size.
His length is also above average with an arm length of just over 33 inches. Cole’s wingspan is almost identical to Ragnow’s but his arm’s are a full inch shorter, signifying the broadness in Cole’s shoulders.
A 4.99 40 time was very much unexpected for Ragnow, and probably slightly faster than what it would’ve been at the combine, but any time under 5.1 is more than sufficient for a player of his stature. Ragnow also tested extremely explosive for his size, and his cone times are good enough.
Nothing stands out too much for Cole, he confirmed he has just enough speed and balance of an above average center.
Starting with Ragnow’s 2016 tape, the first thing that stood out was, at 20 years old, how proficient he was blocking in the second level:
Ragnow looks to have every bit of 5.0 speed and more importantly, he has a good understanding of controlling that speed and making sure he strikes at the right angle and puts himself in a position to seal off the defender in space. He’s got the size to reach linebackers before most and the balance to stay in front and hold positioning, along with the power to finish.
From the tape I saw, Ragnow was about as consistent in 2016 as he was in 2017, with one noticeable difference. Being 6’5”, Ragnow is on the taller side for centers, and in his 2016 season, he got in trouble for his pads being too high and not properly leveraging himself in pass protection and on drive and down blocks.
Despite his length, defensive tackles could get under him and he’d struggle at times dropping an anchor and using his size to his advantage. Ragnow needed to play with a more sound base and pad level in 2017, and he did for the most part.
Ragnow’s hand strength has always been a big positive of his game, and when he locks onto defenders and he puts himself in a position of effective leverage, that combination of length, grip and explosion can lead to serious movement. He works off blocks and peels back to backside defenders very well, and while sometimes it doesn’t look as pretty, he clears out gaps just as well as any lineman in this class.
Another slight concern I had with Ragnow’s 2016 tape was his tendency to be late with his hands in pass protection and that would lead to his pad level issues as well. He was about as sound of a technician as a pass blocker in 2017 as you can be, and definitely grew in this area the most in the seven games he played last season.
His ability as a second level blocker didn’t fade and he was just as good as last year in targeting defenders and sealing them off. He’s the best interior lineman in this class in this category. But Cole showed a lot of promise in this area as well in 2016.
Cole plays with as good of leverage and getting out of his stance as any one of the top centers if not better, it’s why the transition inside was so seamless after spending two years at left tackle. He gets out into space and walls off defenders with a wide base and his above average wingspan.
That stout base Cole plays with makes him a very effective pass protector, and gives him a boost when he has to re-anchor and laterally adjust to stunts and twists. His hands are textbook in terms of striking the center of the defenders chest, and again, he just plays with great natural leverage.
Cole doesn’t have as much power in his core and lower body as Ragnow does, but it was a rare sighting to see him lose the line of scrimmage. Like Ragnow, it’s not always pretty, but he does just enough and his are never inactive. He’s consistently getting lower leg drive and his pad level is never out of control, of course, it’s easier for him being an inch shorter than Ragnow.
As you would expect, Cole can run into trouble against length with shorter than average arms. Most of the time, he’s quick to reset his hands in pass protection, but the losses are going to come against defensive tackles with active hands. He’s not the quickest athlete and that combined with shorter arms is going to make him suspect blocking outside zone where he’d have to reach shaded 1-techniques and 2i-techniques.
Despite one missing half the season and the other switching back to left tackle, I don’t think we should view either Ragnow or Cole as lesser prospects if they both played a full season at center in their respective senior years. The ankle injury happened but Ragnow’s medical is completely clean otherwise, and Cole’s stature clearly fitted as an interior player and it was not beneficially for him to switch back outside for his final year when it could’ve been an important year of growth. Had Cole stayed where he belonged, we would’ve been hearing his name a lot more in this process.
The questions with Ragnow are more clear and cut: can he play with a better base and get his pad level lower more consistently. These were the same questions that surrounded Travis Frederick, who has developed into the best center in the NFL because he worked through these issues with the help of Frank Pollack. There are shades of Frederick in Ragnow, and it’s not hard to comprehend Pollack seeing it as well.
Overall, Ragnow is the better player on tape and has a better chance of becoming a high quality player, and that’s just because of the athleticism and size he possesses. In comparing their 2016 tape, Cole was right with him in consistency. I think we were robbed of Cole as Michigan’s center in 2017 and we would’ve seen someone who would’ve competed with Daniels and Price as the best center to come out of the Big Ten. On the other hand, he’ll become a great value pick because of it.