It’s been a quarter-century since the Detroit Lions have had an offensive lineman the team drafted and developed named a first-team All-Pro, and nearly as long since the team has had a player meeting those same qualifications selected to a Pro Bowl.
It certainly hasn’t been from a shortage of attempts. During that 25-year stretch, the team has selected 15 offensive linemen in the first three rounds of the draft, including nine in the first round. But the latest first-rounder is showing he might have the potential to break the drought.
The Lions caught most observers by surprise when they selected Frank Ragnow with the No. 20 pick in 2018. The team had a clear need at guard that offseason, not center, which Ragnow played at Arkansas, but the team was enamored with his combination of athleticism, intelligence and toughness. They also thought he had the versatility to play either spot.
They plugged Ragnow in at guard as a rookie, and like many first-year linemen, he had issues with consistency. The downs were unquestionably magnified by a disastrous showing against Aaron Donald, one of the most disruptive interior defenders the league has ever seen, but the entirety of that rookie year laid a solid foundation for Ragnow to build upon.
Last year, he moved to center, while making a huge jump in his performance. From those who take the time to evaluate the position, the improvement didn’t go unnoticed. Pro Football Focus graded Ragnow as the NFL’s sixth-best center in 2019.
Now, coming into his third season, Ragnow has clearly established himself as one of the roster’s keystones, and with a little more team success, he’s on the cusp of gaining more national recognition for his play.
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“Frank Ragnow has really just continued to grow and develop every year,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “There’s probably not enough great things to say about him. He’s a great person – just really turning into a tremendous player at the center position. I think he has settled in to that after a year under his belt last year with that, and now really taking the lead of the communication and working with the quarterback and all of the things you need to do as a center to pull that group together. He’s done a phenomenal job.”
What little fans notice of a lineman’s performance is generally limited to what they do from whistle to whistle, but, as Patricia references, the center does so much more. A good one sees what the defense is trying to do before the snap, then communicates that with the quarterback, as well as the rest of the line.
It’s another area where Ragnow has quickly blossomed in Detroit.
“Yeah, that dynamic, that communication is huge,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “The conversations that we have on the field and off the field, but especially on the field before the snap, is hugely important and he does a great job, has to do a great job of relaying what we’re talking about down the line, to both sides. Frank is a really talented player physically. He’s a really smart guy, understands the game well. (He) has done a great job of taking ownership of what his responsibilities are and doing a great job of leading those guys.”
Through the first week of training camp, Ragnow’s comfort level is apparent. Even though he just turned 24 in May, the way he performs snap to snap makes it seem like he’s been doing this for 10 years.
“Yeah, each year, the game slows down,” Ragnow said. “Whether you’re studying tape or getting more reps, you develop that confidence, you develop that trust.”
He’s had the benefit of being pushed on the practice field by some truly talented defenders, from Damon Harrison to Mike Daniels. This year, it’s newcomers Danny Shelton and Nick Williams, two defensive tackles with contrasting skill sets, pushing Ragnow to new levels.
On top of that daily competition, Ragnow committed his offseason to film study, splitting his time pouring over the technical prowess of some of the game’s best centers and gaining a better understanding for how defenses around the league are attacking up front.
Off the top of his head, Ragnow said he watched film from Alex Mack, Travis Frederick and Eric Wood, guys who have similar body types and skill sets.
“Honestly, I try to watch all of them,” he said. “All these guys around the league. They all have their niche and they’re all very talented because they’re starters at their position. I’m just trying to absorb and take what I can from each one of those guys so I can better myself. “
And it certainly hasn’t hurt to have the expertise of offensive line coach Hank Fraley and assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates to lean on. Those two combined to play more than 180 NFL games and both have extensive experience playing center.
“I think those two are doing a great job of giving the coaching perspective, but also the player perspective too,” Patricia said. “There’s a lot of very interesting tricks and technique stuff that centers do and have done through the course of the years to hold the point, hold the middle of the pocket. So it’s fun to watch Frank look at some of those techniques and do some of that stuff.”
As it seemingly always is, Detroit’s offensive line is in the spotlight again heading into the season. The team has all the weapons to be one of the league’s most-productive offenses, but the key to unlocking that potential is better blocking, both in the ground game and in pass protection.
The team will have two new starters on the right side, and left tackle Taylor Decker’s expiring contract is a lingering issue. But if there’s one area where the Lions can rest easy, it’s with Ragnow, the glue holding the unit together.
“He’s very strong, he’s very powerful, he finishes blocks very well, he’s got a great punch, all of those technical things are really great,” Patricia said. “I think it’s probably to your point, like you said, we haven’t said much about him just because he’s anchoring that middle and just doing his job every day and doing it at a high level.”