The New Orleans Saints quietly had a really strong draft in 2016, and with the youth movement on the team in full effect with the exception of a few remaining veterans the Saints are going to need their second year players to step up and become more than just ‘could be’s’, but bonafide contributors. In order to do that each player will need to capitalize on the attributes that can make them special, while also covering for and mitigating their weaknesses. This four-part series will look into each of last year’s rookies who I believe can become a plus player for the Saints in 2017, and how I believe that change can be accomplished.
Sheldon Rankins, DT, 6’2″, 287lbs
At the end of last season Sheldon Rankins was the Saints ‘young player’ with the most to prove, but also the least pressure. Nick Fairley was incredible last year, and with him resigning with the Saints over the off-season it looked like the Saints were in a situation where Rankins living up to his otherworldly potential was a perk, but not a requirement. All of that changed the moment Nick Fairley’s test results came back and he had to take (at minimum) a year off from football for health reasons. Before Nick’s status became official the Saint’s Sophomore with the most to prove was Michael Thomas, but as soon as that announcement came out the weight of the world came down on Sheldon Rankins very large shoulders.
The Saints pass rush was mediocre last year, but it wasn’t due to a lack of opportunities. With Nick Fairley and Cameron Jordan leading the defensive line the Saints had a very high pressure rate and were 3rd in the NFL in quarterback hits. That means that there were literally dozens of plays where the Saints defenders were within inches of sacking the QB, but due to coverage issues they were just not quite able to make it there. With the Saints making changes over the off-season and (hopefully) not needing to employ the services of UDFAs and the likes of B.W. Webb in their starting cornerback slots. With Fairley available and the additions the team made to replace the cadaver of Paul Kruger the expectation was that the Saints defense should be able to convert more of those opportunities into sacks, but all that changed when Fairley went out.
Now all of the pressure is on Rankins to be the player he someday could be today, not sometime in the future. Rankins has a blend of leverage, athleticism, power, and balance that should make him a terror for interior linemen to block. If Rankins can live up to his potential and become a player who can provide similar interior pressure to what Nick Fairley provided last year (more than 30 pressures/hurries), then it is possible that the Saints defense can make the leap we all hope it will even without Nick Fairley. However, if Rankins cannot become a consistent source of pressure and disruption for the Saints opponents then it is likely that we will be in store for another year of bad to mediocre defense.
Sheldon Rankins had less than 15 pressures as a rookie, and easily half of his 4 sacks as a rookie were more cleaning up the efforts of his teammates than a sign of his dominance. There were times where Rankins flashed the combination of agility, power, and balance that got him drafted as the first defensive tackle off the board. There were plenty of other times where it was obvious the time he missed because of a broken leg suffered in training camp slowed down his development and had him half a step behind, something you can’t have at the NFL level. The hope is that Rankins is able to make the sophomore leap and become the difference maker the Saints need. He unequivocally has the ability, and if David Onyemata can improve his game as well there is still hope for the Saints defensive line to be a strength for the team in 2017, but regardless of whether or not Onyemata or any other Saints defensive lineman steps up his game….at the end of the day all of the pressure and responsibility will be on Sheldon Rankins to produce.