Sheldon Rankins arrived in New Orleans ready to work.
Widely heralded by the Saints’ veteran players as exactly what this defense needed out of the draft, Rankins took the field this weekend for his first NFL minicamp under the weight of expectation, both from the fan base and from teammates excited about the kind of pass-rush pressure he can provide.
Four practices into an NFL career is too early to draw any long-term conclusions about his ability to live up to the No. 12 pick in the draft, but Rankins has already made a good impression.
“It’s hard for those guys in the front because we are not in pads, we are just in the helmets,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He is a quick study and handling the install well, and he is in shape.”
Being in shape is no easy task two weeks after the draft.
NFL rookies spend the draft cycle preparing for a series of NFL Combine drills that often don’t translate to the football field, and after the physical testing has ended, they spend the next two months on the road, visiting with teams on intense travel schedules that make it difficult to train.
For that reason, the Saints expect some players to open the first real practices of their NFL careers in less-than-perfect condition. New Orleans’ first-round pick in 2015, offensive lineman Andrus Peat, had trouble acclimating physically all the way into training camp last season.
“We try not to make any assumptions when they get here,” Payton said. “Marques Colston, during that first rookie camp, he struggled; but by the time training camp came around, he was with it. You just try to pay attention to each guy and make sure he holds up. They have to be available to evaluate them.”
Rankins, on the other hand, showed up at the other end of the spectrum.
A first-round talent with a reputation as a hard worker, Rankins immediately made an impression on the Saints coaching staff when he took the field, making plays in the New Orleans heat and chasing hard after the football despite carrying 300 pounds on his frame.
“Once you’re done with pro day, things like that, you need to try to go back to training for your position,” Rankins said. “Hitting bags, change-of-direction stuff. You try to get back into football movements instead of track movements.”
The New Orleans coaching staff was obviously pleased with Rankins’ condition.
But the Saints weren’t surprised.
Beyond his explosive ability on the football field, Rankins checked all the character boxes in the pre-draft process. A self-described quiet, reserved man who spends most of his time focused on football, Rankins has a reputation as an excellent leader, hungry to get better.
“I think one of the biggest things, aside from his athletic ability and aside from what we saw from a production standpoint and the way that he plays football, I think he is a real mature young man,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. “He has a little bit of a feel for what is going to be expected of him and what we anticipate out of him. He has done a good job in this rookie camp of really working.”
Being in shape may seem like a small piece of the puzzle, but Rankins has already eliminated one obstacle that could keep him from being able to contribute heavily as a rookie. Now, he can focus on picking up the scheme and learning NFL technique, rather than worrying about getting through fatigue in the Saints’ summer practices.
That’s how Rankins operates. Eliminate everything that could keep him from reaching his full potential.
“I’m here to play football,” Rankins said. “That’s what I love to do and what I’m going to continue doing. Everything outside of that can wait.”
And as far as the expectations go, Rankins isn’t worried about living up to the No. 12 slot this weekend.
Four practices into the summer, he’s focused on picking up the Saints’ scheme and soaking up information from the veterans on the defensive line.
“I don’t think anyone can have any higher expectations for me than I have for myself,” Rankins said. “When I think about it like that, I just go out there and put my best foot forward.”