‘I want to be great’: Lions’ Frank Ragnow refuses to be blocked out in pursuit of perfection

Detroit News

Allen Park — If you ask the average football fan to name the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, they’ll probably have little trouble providing a list. Sure, there might be some debate between the aging group of future Hall of Famers — Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers — and the new breed that includes the past two MVPs, Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, but we all know the names that belong in the conversation because transcendent talent is easily identifiable at the position. 

 Name the best centers of this generation. That’s more challenging because offensive lineman are typically background figures, or at least they strive to be. And who could blame them when nine out of the 10 times they’re mentioned on a broadcast or in a newspaper article is because they’ve screwed up?

But knowledgeable fans know the names of the league’s premier snappers. There’s Alex Mack, a six-time Pro Bowler currently playing in Atlanta. Jason Kelce, an analytics darling who has earned first-team All-Pro honors the past three years. And you can’t forget about the recently retired Travis Frederick, the heart of Dallas’ dominant front, netting five Pro Bowl selections in the six seasons he played.

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Detroit Lions center Frank Ragnow isn’t in that conversation. Not yet, at least. But the 24-year-old former first-round pick has his eyes fixed on reaching those levels. 

“I want to be great,” Ragnow said. “I want to be the greatest player I can be for my team.”

Through two seasons, he’s off to a good start. The 20th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Ragnow was immediately plugged into the starting lineup at left guard as a rookie. After a predictably inconsistent first year, Ragnow transitioned to center, his college position. Following the switch, things took off in a hurry.  

“Moving back to center, getting back into that groove, that helped a lot,” Ragnow said. 

It can be understandably difficult to quantify the success of an offensive lineman. Since there aren’t counting stats like yards, tackles or touchdowns, we’re left to rely on our eyes.  

Arguably the best resource we have is Pro Football Focus, an analytics site that through its expansive network of experts seeks to grade every snap of every game. In 2019, they ranked Ragnow as the NFL’s sixth-best center, ahead of guys like Frederick and Mack. 

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That’s impressive, any way you slice it. But Ragnow prescribes to a motto that echos throughout NFL locker rooms — If you aren’t getting better, you’re getting worse. With that in mind, he committed a portion of his offseason to not only studying every snap of his own tape, but also the film of the top players at the position. 

Following the recommendations of position coach Hank Fraley, and armed with extensive cut-ups provided by the team’s film staff, Ragnow went to work watching the film of Mack, Frederick, Kelce and several other centers, diving deep into what they do best and trying to find ways to incorporate those skills into his own game. 

Throughout his young career, one of Ragnow’s favorite players to study has been Eric Wood, who retired in 2017. Ragnow started watching Wood in college, in large part because Arkansas’ offensive line coach, Kurt Anderson, had coached Wood briefly with the Buffalo Bills. 

In Wood, Ragnow saw a guy with a similar body type, but more experience with the schemes and techniques Anderson was trying to teach him. 

But as Ragnow sought to expand his study this offseason, one of the first guys Fraley recommended was Mack, who had coincidentally been drafted by Cleveland in 2009 to replace an aging Fraley at the end of his own decade-long career. 

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“I think he does a really good job of getting to the second level, with second-level blocks, at the point of attack, communication, stuff like that,” Fraley said. “That’s one reason I pointed him out. And Frank is very similar to him, seeing him develop, seeing Alex get drafted while I was playing there, honestly drafted to take over my position. And seeing Frank, how he’s developing. They’ve got similar traits, playing styles.”

As Ragnow consumed Mack’s tape, one of the biggest things that stood out was his ability to maintain his posture in pass protection, which Ragnow simultaneously recognizes as a weakness in his own game. 

“If you watch his pass pro posture, he’s so good at standing tall, not leaning,” Ragnow said. “Sometimes, I get in trouble because I lean my shoulders forward.”

And as Fraley mentioned, Ragnow couldn’t help but notice how well both Mack and Kelce used their athleticism in space, whether climbing to the second level to put a body on a linebacker or getting out in front of a screen pass. 

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With Frederick, Ragnow found himself in awe of the Dallas center’s awareness and intelligence. 

“His pass sets and body control, he understands his angles, points of pressure, understands staying square,” Ragnow said. “His eyes, he’s very disciplined with all that. That really helps him as a player, not putting him at any disadvantage.”

But the offseason study wasn’t caged to elite players, Ragnow also singled out linemen who excelled at a particular skill. For example, he committed time to reviewing Minnesota’s Garrett Bradbury and San Francisco’s Weston Richburg, strictly based on how well those two execute outside zone blocking, a run concept also utilized in Detroit.

“Watching those two, with those specific schemes, you see how there’s no wasted movement,” Ragnow said. “That’s one thing, watching it, you realize it and you think about it while you practice, trying to make it become second nature. That’s how I’m trying to absorb it.”

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Ragnow wouldn’t even venture a guess regarding how much time he spent watching film this offseason, downplaying it as a casual project that consumed a half-hour here and an hour there. But the experience loaded him with new ideas for bettering his already rapidly improving game. 

And on the practice field was Fraley, ready to be the driving force who would push his pupil to the next level. 

Detroit’s lineman love Fraley, who was promoted from assistant offensive line coach after Jeff Davidson retired at the end of last season. They group respects the fact he played the game at the highest level, they enjoy his ability to laugh at himself, but most of all, particularly in Ragnow’s case, they love how much Fraley demands of them. 

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“He’s pushed me so hard this training camp,” Ragnow said. “What I really respect about Hank is I can lock up and win a rep, I can move my guy or block him well, but if the technique isn’t right, he’ll let me know. He’ll push me and won’t accept it. That’s one thing that’s been a blessing. It can get frustrating as a player, because you’re thinking I won the rep, but what I love and respect about Hank is he wants more from me.”

Ragnow is right. As humans, we’re not conditioned to take criticism well, and that’s especially true in moments that otherwise seem like success. Fraley admits he probably could be better with his delivery at times, but he also knows which players can handle it.

He also doesn’t want to gloss over reps he calls “false positives,” where the defender would have won had they executed their own technique properly. And on the flip side, he said he has to reel Ragnow in when he comes up short. 

“You should hear him when he gets beat, how mad he is,” Fraley said. “I have to remind him it wasn’t the guy that beat him, maybe it’s your first step or whatever. He wants to immediately go again and you have to kick him out of there because you have to give the next guy (a rep). He does not like to lose.”

It’s clear, as you get to the heart of the player-coach relationship, Fraley can’t conceal the fact that he realizes he has something special in Ragnow, whom he calls one of the strongest players he’s ever been around. It’s why the coach is hard on him, because he knows greatness is attainable. 

And between the physical gifts to the intrinsic drive to reach his maximum potential, Ragnow makes that job so much easier. 

“Frank is such a student of the game and hungry to just become a very good to great player,” Fraley said. “He knows he can continue to improve and that’s what’s fun about coaching that young man is he’s looking to improve daily.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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