Sheldon Rankins believes it's his fault when he doesn’t win a repetition.
It doesn’t matter who lines up against him, he says. If he does the things he's supposed to do, the New Orleans Saints' third-year defensive tackle feels like he should win every rush.
“I definitely feel like any time I line up against somebody, if they’re blocking me, I did something wrong,” Rankins said.
That sounds like a big statement, but it isn’t a new feeling for Rankins. He is a student of football who studies himself and his opponents. He can often figure out why he didn't win. That doesn’t mean he can win every single time, but Rankins believes he has improved in areas that will help him win more often.
He entered the offseason with a mantra: "Win quick and win now."
Rankins spent his offseason studying his losses. He said he realized how often offensive linemen were jump-setting him to counter his quickness. So, after spending his first offseason focused on getting and staying healthy, Rankins spent this offseason trying to improve his hand speed.
“I think the more you play, the more you kind of see the way guys are going to approach playing against you, see how guys are going to approach the way you rush,” Rankins said.
The other things Rankins worked to improve were his fundamentals in the run game, beating double-teams and executing his secondary pass-rush moves if the initial one does not work. In general, he wants to find ways to be more disruptive.
The former first-round pick’s traditional stats from last season won’t impress anyone. Rankins finished with two sacks after logging four over nine games as a rookie. From that perspective, it might look like Rankins took a step back.
But a more nuanced eye might notice that Rankins created more than 40 pressures last season — and many of his sacks as a rookie were the result of chance, simply being in the right place at the right time. If the pure stats didn’t improve, his film grade probably did.
Rankins also has value that goes beyond just his individual pursuit to get after quarterbacks. His teammates dubbed him “the mastermind” of the defensive line last season for his ability to process information before the snap and check into things that will help the group succeed.
And defensive end Cam Jordan often talked about how Rankins sacrificed himself to open up rushing lanes for other players.
Without much scheming during the preseason, defensive linemen are mostly left to handle things on their own and see what happens.
Rankins took advantage of his opportunities by recording four pressures on 17 snaps during Thursday’s 24-20 exhibition win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Three of those plays came against the reserve offensive line, but against that unit, Rankins lived in the backfield, which is what you'd hope for against lesser competition.
Rankins’ output in practices has led to some hype this offseason. Former Saints right tackle Zach Strief relayed that the offensive linemen in camp feel Rankins has been unblockable at times in practice. There have also been some predictions that he will finish this season with 10 sacks.
Those forecasts seem to create unfair expectations for a player who had just two sacks last fall. Perhaps he hits the mark, but Rankins can still improve from a season ago, finish with four or five sacks, and lay claim to having a successful season if he continues to create for others, ups his pressure percentage, and makes some impactful plays. Sacks are still king, but there are other ways to make an impact.
Rankins probably has some goals in mind, but he isn’t the type to share them. Right now, he’s enjoying the competition he’s having with fellow defensive tackle David Onyemata and envisioning the possibilities for the interior defensive line.
“I can remember (as a) rookie having to be out there with him and having to tell him where to go damn near every time, to now where he’s coming to me and giving me suggestions on the things he’s seeing,” Rankins said of Onyemata. “Just his evolution as a player, period, is happening a lot faster than people thought it would.”
Rankins’ evolution as a player isn’t over, either. He continues to improve and play a key role. It’s just a question of whether it shows up in more obvious ways or if you have to look a little closer to see it.