MOBILE, Ala. — Being a defensive tackle in the 2016 NFL draft might be the toughest audition any prospect faces this year.
There are simply too many good ones available.
Experts are roundly and routinely calling this defensive tackle class one of the deepest they have ever seen, music to the ears of a team like the New Orleans Saints that might be in the market for a playmaker on the interior. For the prospects themselves, the challenge is finding a way to stand out in a sea of talent.
Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins has already found a way to make an unforgettable impression.
Rankins dominated the first two days at the Senior Bowl before a knee injury forced him to pull out of the game. Before that, though, the 6-foot-2, 303-pound Rankins was nearly unblockable, racking up 10 wins and just two losses in one-on-one pass rush drills and thoroughly standing out on a field full of impressive interior defenders.
“He demonstrated every feature needed to be a top-notch interior tackle at the next level with his ability to play at the point of attack, his agility to chase when a run goes away from him and his overall quickness and strength in rushing the passer,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said.
Rankins is now widely considered the class of the defensive tackle group, a spot that almost always guarantees a spot in the top 10 on draft night.
But this draft might be different. With so many good tackles available, teams might try to grab the elite players at other positions first, betting that they can still land an impact tackle on the draft’s second day.
Both ESPN’s Mel Kiper and the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah project Rankins to the Saints at No. 12 — the first tackle coming off the board.
“You want to be the guy everyone’s talking about,” Rankins said in Mobile. “You want to be the guy everyone’s pointing at.”
Based on the way he played in Mobile, Rankins might be a steal at that spot. A basketball player in addition to football at Eastside High School in Covington, Georgia, Rankins has good balance and impressive athleticism, repeatedly beating Senior Bowl guards and centers with the kind of tight, compact spin move you normally see from a much larger player.
Rankins is also versatile. In four years at Louisville, Rankins lined up at nose tackle, as a penetrating 3-technique — the spot Kevin Williams played in 2015 for the Saints — and as a strong-side defensive end.
He already had the athleticism, but he credits former Cardinals defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, now an assistant for the Chicago Bears, with encouraging him to be as pliable as possible.
“That’s where I get my versatility from,” Rankins said. “If you learn everything, you’ll never have to worry about getting on the field, because there will always be a spot for you. It’s something I carry with me.”
Rankins is also a proven prospect with the on-field production to back up his Senior Bowl dominance. Working in Louisville’s defense, Rankins racked up 26.5 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks in his final two seasons, intercepted two passes as a junior and scooped up a fumble for a 46-yard touchdown against Boston College as a senior.
If he has one drawback, it’s that he stands a shade under 6-2, making him a little smaller than a lot of the other behemoths in the draft.
Rankins said he believes his height is actually an advantage.
“Being able to get under guys that are 6-4, 6-5, lift their pads higher than they want to play at,” Rankins said. “I’m more compact. I’m able to get out of my stance a bit quicker than a bigger guy, so I’ve got a little bit more burst.”
Enough to stand out among the best.