The Saints had a clearly defined goal last winter.
The defense needed several improvements (and could still use some upgrading) but the team set its sights on significantly upgrading the interior rush. To do so, New Orleans took a chance on Nick Fairley, signing him to a one-year deal rich with incentives, and drafted defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in the first round.
You could dismiss the moves' impact on the defense by citing traditional stats. New Orleans finished with 30 sacks in 2016 — one fewer than in 2015 and four fewer than it had in the year before that.
In an NFL in which sacks are king and fans ignore the process, the quick take from viewing those numbers might look like nothing changed or the situation even deteriorated.
But those figures do not tell the real story. New Orleans logged 106 quarterback hits this season after posting 64 in 2015. That means the team was around the quarterback more often, speeding up throws and inducing mistakes. Perhaps the most telling part of that equation: The defensive tackles accounted for 33 of the QB hits after having nine the year before.
Fairley’s production is the biggest reason for that change. The veteran came to New Orleans with something to prove after a perceived lack of motivation followed him through his first five NFL seasons. After recording just a half-sack for St. Louis in 2015, he put that talk to rest with the Saints.
In many ways, he was the team’s best defensive player this side of defensive end Cam Jordan. He finished with 6½ sacks but contributed 40 more hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He also played a direct role in creating at least three other sacks for teammates. You don’t have to look far to find his best moments; just turn on a game.
Now, the Saints need to figure out whether they can afford to retain Fairley and whether it makes sense to pay what that will take. His play in 2016 would suggest the team can’t afford to lose him, but the market could dictate whether it’s feasible to keep him.
Rankins’ season is a little more complicated to unpack when you start to wonder what he would have done over 16 games. That will forever be unknown because he started the season on injured reserve with a broken fibula and was limited to nine games. Despite the missed time, the rookie drew praise from teammates and coaches for recording four sacks.
The issue: He had only nine hurries outside of his sacks. Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said it took Rankins time to get his legs back underneath him and that he lacked some explosion early on.
“It’s hard when you come off an injury like that to just jump right in and be 100 percent at your best. So I think it took him a few games to get comfortable,” Allen said. “For lack of a better term, he went through a stretch there where he probably had a little bit of 'camp legs.' You usually get that out of the way in training camp.
“Unfortunately for him, this happens after the first couple of games for him, but I think for him as he’s gone on, I think he’s gotten a lot better. I think he’s gotten a better understanding of what we’re asking him to do, and he’s been a really productive and disruptive player for us.”
Even if his pressure-to-sack ratio wasn't ideal, it’s impossible to label Rankins’ rookie season as anything other than a success. He flashed in a lot of moments, showing an ability to gain leverage on blockers, a high motor and some nice rush moves. He also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, which can be a skill.
Rankins showed his timing against Detroit when he lined up at defensive end, carried an offensive tackle with him with one arm (which prevented a roll-out) and then shed the blocker to make a sack after Jordan flushed Matthew Stafford from the pocket. He did it again when he followed a roll-out by Tampa Bay's Jameis Winston and peeled off a block to clean up a sack that was missed by one of his teammates.
After reviewing every snap Rankins played this season, it’s clear there are areas where he could improve. For a rookie, it would be unusual if you can't find areas to nitpick or point to for improvement — especially one who missed half the season. There were times when he looked a step slow off the line, or when it appeared he could have attacked with a better plan. Those should be fixed with more experience and health.
The better things to key in on with a young player — especially on the defensive line — are the moments when he flashes, and Rankins had those sprinkled in throughout his season. He had three impressive rushes in his first game against San Francisco, beating guard Joshua Garnett with a nice spin move and then bull-rushing Zane Beadles twice.
He blew up a screen against Carolina and pushed the pocket once to force an incompletion. He recorded a few pressures against Denver before finally picking up a sack. And his top moment might have been a sack and forced fumbled against Los Angeles.
The rookie also had some standout moments in more subtle ways that won't show up in his stats. It was Rankins who gained leverage on his blocker and sealed a hole against Tampa Bay that allowed Paul Kruger to get in the backfield and drop running back Doug Martin for a safety. On one play against Denver, he occupied two blockers, which allowed Dannell Ellerbe to get behind him for a sack.
And even though it didn’t amount to anything, another play that stood out was a combo rush he had with Jordan against Detroit. After David Onyemata sealed off the center, Rankins and Jordan both used inside moves to beat their men. Stafford got rid of the ball before they could get there, but the play showed Rankins' impressive first step.
By simply doing the math, it’s not fair to assume Rankins would have had eight sacks, or close to it, if he had played all 16 games. That would have made him one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL, at least in terms of sacks. If he becomes that player, that would be a great asset for this defense, but assuming that's what in store creates an unreasonable level of expectation entering just his second season.
The key for Rankins is to come back fully healthy, continue to develop and find ways to make his flashes more abundant. If he can do that — and create pressure at the same rate as Fairley did — the Saints will have one of the better interior rushes in the NFL, assuming all of the key players are retained.
If that happens, the Saints will have achieved their goal from last season.