The New Orleans Saints had no surprises in store for their first pick of an NFL draft marked by a flurry of trades in the top 10, highly regarded players falling down the board because of character and injury concerns and a series of eye-opening picks at the top.
New Orleans simply stuck to its spot at No. 12 and selected Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins, the player most experts projected to the Saints throughout an endless, ever-changing cycle of mock drafts.
Taking Rankins simultaneously addressed the defense’s biggest area of need and found another building block in the team’s effort to stock the locker room with young, high-character players.
“Being selected as high as I was, being selected at all, is a dream come true,” Rankins said. “I’ll be looking to come in and help any way I can.”
New Orleans has been clear throughout the draft cycle that the team wanted to bring in players who could upgrade a pass rush that tied for 25th in the NFL with just 31 sacks last season, and although the Saints have Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan and a bevy of young, promising rushers led by 2015 second-round pick Hau’oli Kikaha, the defense has struggled to produce interior pressure. Rookie Tyeler Davison led the Saints’ entire defensive tackle corps with just 1.5 sacks last season.
Rankins is widely considered the best pass rusher in a tackle class many NFL general managers evaluated as the deepest position in the draft. Used all over the defensive line at Louisville, Rankins racked up 14 sacks the past two seasons, and he showed impressive quickness and penetration at the Senior Bowl. By taking Rankins, New Orleans instantly upgraded a position expected to be manned by Nick Fairley, a veteran trying to prove himself on a one-year deal.
But despite the obvious marriage of need and talent Rankins represented, New Orleans did not show heavy interest in Rankins in the draft process. The Saints interviewed Rankins at the Senior Bowl in January and the NFL scouting combine in February, but they did not hold a private workout with him or bring him in for a pre-draft visit.
Rankins tried hard to not take a guess at where he might land.
“After going through the process, talking to guys who have been through it, you can’t pay attention to things like that,” Rankins said. “You just go into it with no expectations.”
The Louisville product also fits the character profile the Saints have emphasized ever since locker-room issues derailed the 2014 season.
“I’m a quiet kid, pretty reserved, pretty much laid-back, to myself,” Rankins said. “I come from a hard-working family. My mom’s a teacher, grandparents work hard, and that’s just what I’ve been built on. That’s pretty much how I was raised.”
Family is important to Rankins.
Rather than travel to Chicago for the glitz and glamour of the NFL stage, Rankins turned down the league’s offer in order to watch the draft with his family and friends at his brother’s house in Covington, Georgia, a small town southeast of Atlanta.
“I just wanted to be around everyone who’s been with me throughout this entire journey,” Rankins said. “My grandparents are older; they wouldn’t be able to fly and things like that. Being able to have them close by, bunch of family, friends and different (people) have helped me. Throughout my entire football career, I’ve had a lot of people help me, so being able to have everybody in the same room and witness this moment, it was something I always saw myself having.”
New Orleans made sure the Rankins family had plenty of reason to celebrate.