There it is.
It’s midway through the first half against Houston and Louisville’s defensive lineman, No. 98, is lined up as a defensive tackle in a three-man front. A linebacker, Keith Kelsey, is lined up on the left edge, showing blitz.
The ball is snapped. Sheldon Rankins, the defensive tackle, is shaded over the outside shoulder of right guard Colton Freeman. He shoots toward the middle of the line, across the body of the guard, who never lays a hand on him. Rankins then bounces off a block attempt by center Ben Dew and heads toward the backfield.
Quarterback Greg Ward sees the blitz coming off the edge. He momentarily considers stepping up in the pocket, but Rankins is now crashing down, vacating the area between the guards where Ward was hoping to find asylum. Ward freezes. He only has one option: tuck the ball and wait for impact.
Kelsey does the honors. Rankins celebrates.
This play is one of the many examples of why the Saints selected Rankins with the 12th overall pick.
Think back to last season. How often did the Saints’ interior rush flush out a player for Cam Jordan or one of the other defensive ends coming off the edge? It wasn’t often. If Jordan wasn’t creating pressure or doing the flushing, it usually wasn’t happening at all.
That’s where Rankins comes in.
People often like to talk about pressure in terms of guys coming off the edges, but getting it from the middle of the line can be more valuable. The quarterback doesn’t always see the pressure coming from his blindside or off the edges. It’s unavoidable when it’s coming up the middle.
Ward knew Rankins was coming. If he wasn’t aware of the linebacker coming off the edge, the interior pressure would have caused him to either speed up and get rid of the ball or flee the pocket.
And that means opportunity for the defense.
In New Orleans, Jordan, Hau’oli Kikaha or whoever else is coming off the edge will gladly greet quarterbacks seeking comfort outside of the pocket, away from the interior rush. And the secondary would love to see more hurried throws or quarterbacks firing the ball while on the move.
The 31 sacks and nine interceptions this defense produced last year simply were not enough. Rankins should help with those things.
He isn’t a perfect prospect. It didn’t help that he was by far the best player on the Louisville defensive line and often drew double, and sometimes triple, teams. But it’s only fair to point out that there were stretches when Rankins was not as active as one might like last season.
It also should be stated that a player selected with the 12th pick is viewed with a more critical eye than someone selected lower or in a later round.
But those few dry spells weren’t enough to outweigh the positives.
And there are plenty to talk about.
One of the first things you notice about Rankins is his ability to gain leverage on guards and drive them back into the pocket. He also knows how to use his hands to get off blocks.
A good example of this came during a game against Clemson when he drove a guard into the back a few feet, a move which allowed another defensive lineman to stunt behind him and pressure quarterback Deshaun Watson. The quarterback tried to climb the pocket to escape the rush, at which point Rankins shed the guard and dropped Watson for a sack.
There are some concerns about the length of Rankins’ arms, which might or might not be warranted, but once he gets his hands on someone, it’s usually tough for them to recover. The 6-foot-1 Rankins knows how to use his height to his advantage to quickly gain leverage.
Rankins also has good burst and sometimes catches blockers by surprise. He defends the run well and can impress with his ability to get out and track down plays. One such play came during the Houston game when he abandoned his rush and got out in the flat to snuff out a screen pass.
The only knock on Rankins might be that he could be a more refined pass rusher — and that might be nitpicking considering he collected 14 combined sacks over the last two seasons. But he’s still not a fully polished player and could benefit by adding some more moves to his repertoire. Maybe that should be considered a positive, because there’s an obvious area where he can quickly show improvement with a little coaching.
Rankins played all over the line at Louisville, but it would be surprising if he lines up anywhere else than three-technique defensive tackle. He’ll likely compete with Nick Fairley, a free agent signed this offseason, in camp for snaps. It’s not unreasonable to think he could end up stealing some first-team reps.
This defense has a long way to go to get where it wants and needs to be. There are a lot of questions to answer.
There are few sure things on the defensive line. Jordan excelling is a given. There is nothing certain about Fairley, Rankins, and Kikaha, who is expected to compete for snaps at defensive end this year.
However, in theory, it’s possible to envision ways each of those players can succeed. And if they do, maybe some combination of those players will come together to form a decent defensive line.