The moment before an NFL general manager makes a first-round selection during the draft must make every nerve ending feel as if someone froze helium gas into a thick, cold plasma and injected it into the nervous system. If based in reality, I imagine this is the same sensation Indiana Jones, Elsa and Donovan felt as they walked into the temple of the Holy Grail. All three, with axons and neurons iced with apprehensive fear, looking around in utter amazement at a 700-year old knight and the fantastic goblets that could be the cup of everlasting life. The knight says, “You must choose. But choose wisely. For as the true Grail will bring you life – the false grail will take it from you.” The kingly cups of precious metals and gems were not the correct choice; instead, the cup that healed Indiana’s decades-old scar tissue and his father’s gunshot wound was an earthen vessel that was the cup of the carpenter. The San Francisco 49ers' number nine position has many writers, experts and fans bedazzled by the allure of a skill position player; some are overcome with great fear and loathing of the 49ers 'wasting' a high choice on an offensive lineman. A skill position would be the poor choice. Friends, it’s time to get on board with the 49ers selecting center Frank Ragnow from the University of Arkansas ninth overall. Ragnow is a 6’5, 317-pound senior, whose last season at Arkansas was cut short on October 21, 2017 against Auburn. Ragnow, a candidate for numerous preseason awards including the Rimington Trophy, Outland Trophy and nearly any first-team you can dream of, suffered a high ankle sprain that required a 12-week recovery period. Before the injury, he’d only missed 43 offensive snaps since becoming a permanent starter during his sophomore year. Additionally, he’d not given up a sack in over 2,603 snaps at center. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed one hurry and one pressure on 189 pass block attempts last season. Admittedly, that’s a low number to use as a barometer for consistent play. For discussion’s sake, let’s say Ragnow doesn’t hurt his ankle and plays out the 2017 college football season. Assume he doubles his pass block attempts to 378, which means he’d have only allowed two hurries and two pressures all season. If you’re a person who wants to use verifiable fact to build an argument, which is a boat I often find myself rowing, we can use 2016 statistics from Pro Football Focus. During his junior year, Ragnow played 949 snaps and allowed three quarterback hits, nine hurries and no sacks. He was named a Pro Football Focus All-America first team in 2016 and battled through the sudden death of his father in the middle of the season. Ragnow flew home immediately following and played the following week against Alabama. Ragnow plays each snap with the same tenacity and flawless technique, which is why I’d be hard-pressed to find a better interior lineman than him in this year’s draft. His vertical movement, explosion and pass and run blocking are consistent play after play. Playing offensive line is much like playing quarterback. Each play depends on precise lower-body technique. A misstep here or the wrong footwork there results in a missed block or a poor throw. Good college offensive linemen can often use sheer strength and ability to make an opponent look foolish or ineffective. However, watch enough tape, and you can quickly tell if the offensive lineman is genuinely dominating the point of attack each play, or he’s playing against a much weaker opponent who enjoys playing soft and easing up now and then. Ragnow’s technique is what makes him the ideal first-round selection for the 49ers. Each play – no matter if he’s run or pass blocking – looks the same at the snap. His body is in the same place at the point of attack, working just below his opponent’s pads to up near the rotator cuff. He is squared up with his hips and ankles in alignment, meaning he's never making the first contact with only half his body. Ragnow is never overextended over his toes, nor off-balance because his base is either too broad or too narrow. This past season 49er guards Laken Tomlinson, Brandon Fusco, and Zane Beadles, along with center Daniel Kilgore, ignored consistent technique which brought little success against defensive linemen. Ragnow can rely on instinct and strength when needed. During a 2016 game against Ole Miss, I saw him keep his head to the right and fend off an opponent with his left arm. It’s much more likely a real-life Indiana Jones does find the grail before the likes of Beadles or Tomlinson can accomplish blocking a defensive lineman with one arm. Ragnow has everything the 49ers want in an offensive lineman: experience, leadership, vertical explosion, lateral movement and a sense of humor. However, it’s the high ankle sprain that might scare teams away. Assuming his recovery went well – he is listed on the upcoming Senior Bowl roster – he should be a first-round selection. However, it’s up to general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan to look past the false choices once they find themselves in the war room. Drafting a center ninth overall has all the excitement of hitting a two-line progressive jackpot on a penny slot machine. But, for the 49ers, Frank Ragnow is the wise choice as they continue down the path of football immortality.
Scouting Spotlight: OL Frank Ragnow