The first six weeks of the season have been hard on Sheldon Rankins.
Drafted with the No. 12 pick to instantly upgrade the interior rush in New Orleans, Rankins has instead spent two months on the perimeter of his team, trying to rehab the broken fibula he suffered in a goal-line drill in training camp.
Returning to the practice field on Wednesday allowed Rankins to feel normal again.
"I haven’t been able to be with my teammates fully on the practice field, laughing, cutting up, competing," Rankins said. "That’s the thing I really miss — competing. So being able to just go back out there today and go through some individuals and run around, it was awesome."
Rankins, who was placed on injured reserve at the beginning of the season and designated to return on Wednesday, must now practice for two weeks before he can play the first game of his NFL career, likely on the road against the San Francisco 49ers in two weeks.
"Barring any setbacks, I think we’re on schedule for that time frame," Rankins said. "I’m going to take it day by day and let God handle the rest."
Two weeks give Rankins some time to ease into game shape. Rankins, whose weight stayed firm at 305 pounds, has been running for a couple of weeks now and retains his strength, but there's a difference between being ready to practice and being ready for an NFL game.
"A couple weeks is fine," Rankins said. "You’ve been doing it for so long, you kind of have some semblance of what you’re doing out there. But timing is everything when I’m rushing the passer, when I throw my hands or when I take this step to come inside and different things like that. And conditioning — being able to run to the ball, play hard, things like that. I think those are the real things these few weeks are going to allow me to do and be a big help for me."
Missing the first half of his NFL career was hard to take.
But there was a benefit to being placed on injured reserve. Rankins was forced to take his rehabilitation slow rather than rush back, an obvious temptation for a self-described football junkie who had some momentum building in training camp before the injury.
"He’s an explosive player," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "We got to see three weeks of him with pads on. He was impressive. When he does come back, I think we’re all excited about the opportunity to have him out there and the element that he’ll add to that defensive line."
Rankins impressed his teammates in part with his athleticism, in part with a professionalism beyond his years.
Billed as the quickest rush artist in one of the deepest defensive tackle classes in years, Rankins faced less of a learning curve than most rookies because he already knew how his game fit in the NFL.
"He came in quiet, studious of the game. He came in trying to learn automatically," defensive end Cam Jordan said. "He already knew what he could excel at. When you have a rookie who's not trying to find himself, that's something that's special."
Back then, Rankins was the clear starter at three-technique tackle, projected to then team with veteran Nick Fairley in pass-rushing situations inside. With Rankins out, Fairley has nine quarterback hits and a team-high 3.5 sacks, and fellow rookie David Onyemata has proven to be a promising pressure player.
Facing his first game action in two months, Rankins might have to ease into his snaps at first, trying to make an impact in a limited capacity at first.
The rookie understands, and he's ready.
At this point, the only thing he wants is to get back on the field. Taking starter's snaps, living up to the lofty expectations faced by a first-rounder, all of that can come later.
"Whatever they need me to do," Rankins said. "I know playing this game, especially inside, it's a fight every play. Even if I can come in and give those guys 10 to 15 plays off a game, whatever it is, if they need me to come out and be a third-down guy, or play first or second down. Whatever it is, whatever Coach needs me to do, I'm down to do."
Anything's better than the quiet.