The rumors made it seem like anything was possible.
A quarterback. A trade. A receiver. A lingering injury. Someone with character concerns.
All the options and rumors swirled and twisted together to create a knot of confusion that made it difficult to focus on the obvious player who had been out in the open the whole time. And that was just the way the Saints wanted it. Instead of doing something to quiet the noise, they sat back, remained silent and then reached through the smoke to pull defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins out of Louisville.
A few other players would have made sense with the 12th pick. UCLA linebacker Myles Jack, who is battling a knee injury, and Clemson pass rusher Shaq Lawson, who was picked 19th, were up for grabs. But getting an interior pass rusher, someone who could plug the gap at three-technique defensive tackle, made too much sense.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, either.
Every year after the Super Bowl, coach Sean Payton spends the offseason talking about the things the teams playing in it do well. And, wisely, he tries to take things from it.
Last year it was secondary play, press coverage and the importance of nickel defense.
This year, it was hard not to notice how well the Denver Broncos created pressure, both from the interior and off the edges.
In Rankins, he saw a player who can provide some much-needed pressure in the defensive front. It also helps that he was also the player the Saints were eyeing heading into the draft with the No. 12 pick.
“We felt real strong about all the boxes being checked with this specific player,” Payton said.
The Saints still need to find another option to play on the end opposite Cameron Jordan, whether that be Hau’oli Kikaha or a player selected later in the draft. The interior, however, now appears to be set.
New Orleans brought in Nick Fairley to help at defensive tackle as a free agent this offseason on a one-year deal. It appears Rankins (6-foot-1, 299 pounds) will compete with him for snaps. Either way, both players should have roles and serve as an improvement over veteran Kevin Williams, who filled the gap last year.
Rankins can be that kind of player after recording six sacks, eight quarterback hits and 29 hurries last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And he showed it during the Senior Bowl by dominating during one-on-ones with the offensive linemen.
That should help a defense that didn’t create much interior pressure last season and finished the year with 31 sacks, a total that ranked 25th in the league.
“You’re looking for players who can win one-on-one matchups,” Payton said. “That box, whether you check he’s a pressure player or not, do you view him as someone who can affect the quarterback in passing situations? There are a lot of good football players that are going to get drafted in the defensive front that we might not check that box, but he’s someone that is disruptive inside.
“The disruption for the quarterback can come inside or outside. The outside rush is more visible, and you see that more. Oftentimes the inside is just as problematic, if not more. It’s an important decision if we’re checking that box. There’s added value. He’s going to play more snaps.”
Rankins operated primarily on a three-man line at Louisville, though he said he moved all about the line and served in various capacities. He said he does not have a preference or feel that he’s better at one spot than another.
Being able to move about is one of the things Rankins considers among his greatest strengths.
“First thing I’d probably say is my versatility,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve always hung my hat on, being able to do multiple things in a defense. Obviously, what comes along with that is intelligence. I’m able to understand schemes, understand what offenses are trying to attack. And then I’d probably say my quickness and hand usage.”
A self-described football junkie, Rankins said he studies just about every defensive lineman in the league. He also likes to go back and analyze himself “just for fun.”
Among the guys he likes to watch and try to pick things up from are Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald, Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins and Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy. However, there’s one guy he likes to watch more than the rest.
“My favorite guy is probably Jurrell Casey,” Rankins said of the 6-1 Titans defensive tackle who finished with seven sacks last season. “Similar body types, similar movement styles. I think he is more of a natural comparison just based off those things. I watch a lot of guys, even defensive ends and different guys like that. I’m always just trying to take any tidbits from all great player and apply it to my game.”
New Orleans still has work to do to bolster a defense that was among the worst in the league last season. It needs to add depth at safety and potentially cornerback. And, as mentioned, another defensive end or pass rusher would be beneficial.
Nothing is won or lost on a piece of paper in April. But this was a nice first step.
It’s not often that one of the best players on the board also addresses a pressing need.
Things lined up for the Saints on Thursday night.