In a night that was full of surprises, the Saints were one of the few teams to not mess with the status quo and actually selected what many considered to be the consensus best pick for them. At 12th overall, the Saints selected tackle Sheldon Rankins, whose excellent offseason leading up to the draft allowed him to leapfrog Alabama NT A'Shawn Robinson in the eyes of various scouts.
Rankins brings an interior presence to a Saints' team that sorely needs it, as last season they had a decent edge rush from DE Cameron Jordan and Hau'oli Kikaha / Kasim Edebali, but it was easily avoided as the Saints' lack of interior pressure allowed quarterbacks to step up away from the pressure. The idea behind the Rankins pick is that the Saints will shore up their defense two fold, both in pass rush up the middle and in the running game, where the Saints were also absolutely woeful last season.
Rankins's bread & butter lies in his bull rush, which is to say that he thrives off of pushing the big guys in front of him backwards. He's capable of shedding blockers, but finesse isn't his strong suit. He's far more effective as a brute force player.
This play encapsulates everything that the Saints want out of a bull rusher in the middle of their line. Louisville rushes 5 on this play, while Florida State runs a single back shotgun with trips.
Rankins is quickly swallowed into the fold, as interior players are want to do early in plays. Rankins does do well twisting out of blocks early, but it isn't necessarily his go to move, as is the case here. He forces himself through the middle.
This is one of those "having a bad day" moments that quarterbacks sometimes have. Rankins forces his way through the interior and blows up the play mere seconds after its start, forcing an incompletion and a third down for the Louisville defense. This play is sheer, brute force up the middle and he out-leverages the FSU offensive line.
Rankins would not get the sack as FSU's QB Houdini'd his way out of the pocket, but the play was dead from the get-go.
To watch the play, click here.
Where Rankins can sometimes struggle is in shedding his blocks if he's out-muscled at the point of attack. He is so strong and so reliant on that bull rush technique, that his repertoire in terms of moves is very limited. That's not necessarily deal breaking for an NT whose biggest job is to take up space, but it can be an issue for a team that struggles to defend the run.
This play is what happens when Rankins gets stood up. Again it's a minimal pass rush, only four guys, and FSU's backfield is empty.
As most know, the key to a successful pass rush is leverage at the point of attack. Players get that leverage by staying low at the snap and driving forward. Rankins is quickly stood up by FSU's G on this play mitigating the effect that he can ultimately have on the play. Because of this, Rankins is taken out of the play early.
FSU's QB reads this play extremely poorly, and had he seen the edge rusher coming off of the side he would have had the wherewithal to step up away from the edge rush. This was where the Saints struggled last season. If Rankins can't collapse that pocket from the inside then QBs will read Jordan or Kikaha coming off of the edge and they'll be able to avoid the New Orleans' pass rush. Luckily, Rankins's style suits itself to this, as he isn't going to be flashy on the inside, but rather he'll force people back.
The Saints, contrary to popular belief, have the tools to have an effective defense. If they can stay healthy and if Rankins pans out, they could be very formidable heading into next season. Last season, a lack of push up the middle and injuries hurt the Saints' defense, in addition to poor scheming. Rankins absolutely cannot go the way of John Jenkins or Broderick Bunkley if the Saints are to succeed next year. That may mean he will have to get a bit stronger, as he's not facing ACC offensive lines anymore, but he has the potential to be a highly effective pass rusher at the NFL level if he comes in and merely complements the Jordans and Kikahas that the Saints already have lining up on the edges. Also keep in mind that they have some players inside such as Tyeler Davison, who they drafted last year, that will let the Saints use a rotation on the inside rather than tiring out their big guys in the first quarter.