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Saints’ Sheldon Rankins is the best defensive lineman no one is talking about in the NFL

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It was a tough call, but we went with the man in the middle as the best Saints defensive lineman that no one is talking about.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The New Orleans Saints defense has been a huge talk of the NFL over the past several weeks, and rightfully so. With the team winning seven straight games after starting in the dreaded 0-2 space, more national outlets are talking black and gold. We already know the defensive line has been playing at a strong level, but who is the one player that no is one talking about that deserves praise?

Cam Jordan needs no accolades here, as he’s clearly one of the top defensive ends in the NFL. For us, it’s between Alex Okafor and Sheldon Rankins, with David Onyemata and Tyeler Davison extremely worthy of honorable mentions. However, Rankins means more to the Saints.

As far as Alex Okafor goes, Pro Football Focus certainly has some good stats involving him. He ranks 31st in pass rush productivity metric, a stat that basically weights the number of pressures a player generates against the number of snaps he rushes the passer. Okafor has 5 sacks, 2 QB hits and 17 hurries, totaling 24 QB pressures on 260 pass rushing snaps. He ranks 4th overall with a 9.2% in our run stop percentage, creating a “stop” on 14 of 146 running plays so far. Most impressively, Okafor has not missed a single tackle this season in both the run and pass game. He’s one of only six defensive ends to do so.

However, it’s Rankins that quietly steals the show. As noted in a Nick Underhill column in The Advocate last month (which you should read if you haven’t), he could be labeled the brains of the defense.

Cam Jordan: “Whatever the stats don’t show and do show, this guy is clearly evolving into a better pass rusher. He’s able to call out a lot of different things for us. I don’t want to give it away. I’m simply saying he’s becoming the mastermind of the defensive line.”

Rankins has been one of PFF’s best defensive tackles in terms of Pass Rush Productivity over the past seven weeks, and most recently was Week 10’s second-highest graded defensive tackle in pass coverage with one interception and a 77.2 grade. For perspective, Rankins was 53rd in pass rush productivity through the first two weeks of the season, generating only two hurries and no other pressures. Since then, he ranks 4th with 23 total pressures on 190 pass rushing snaps. For the season, Rankins has an overall grade of 81.4, deemed above average by their standards.

Here’s a few thoughts from our staff:

Chris Dunnells: I'd go with Okafor. He's been brilliant this year, swatting down passes, getting pressure on the QB, containing the edge rushes. He's providing similar value on a one-year deal that the Saints were able to get out of Nick Fairley last year. But speaking of Fairley, if you want to go with REALLY under the radar, I'd go with Sheldon Rankins, because he doesn't have the counting stats that even Okafor has thus far, no one is really talking about him. But after losing Fairley before the season even started, it's been Rankins who has helped anchor the middle of the Saints D-Line and doesn't get nearly the amount of praise he deserves. He's asked to generate interior pressure, plug gaps for inside runs, and even drop box in coverage (what?) at times, leading to his glorious interception last week.

John Sigler: I’d agree with Okafor and Rankins, but David Onyemata has been very impressive. He’s like third on the team in tackles for loss.

Adam Williamson: I would say that most underrated to this point is Rankins. Okafor/Onyemata/CJ94 have all had the stats it seems and everyone is asking where Rankins is. The reality is, he's creating disruption up front to allow Onyemata the opportunity for those TFL in the backfield on a lot of plays. He's dropping into coverage and looking like a agile heavier linebacker in situations. Before the interception, he was the one player people seemed most disappointed with when he had actually been performing well most of the year. He's really stepped it up these past couple weeks and the stats will start to come. This D-Line isn't near as successful without him up front, in my opinion.

Ellias Williams: Rankins hasn't been allowed to penetrate as much as Fairley was allowed to last year. The D-Line as a whole on the interior is doing more freeing up of LBs than gap penetrating at the snap, To which he's done a great job at. More dirty work this year. And yet his versatility goes unnoticed. He's lined up at DE 3-tech, Nose, dropped in coverage, etc. since he's been here. He’s been making line calls since his rookie year and he's smart. If he had Onyemata’s body, he would be dominant.

Poll

Who’s the best Saints defensive line that no one is talking about?

This poll is closed

  • 71%
    Sheldon Rankins
    (431 votes)
  • 18%
    Alex Okafor
    (109 votes)
  • 10%
    David Onyemata
    (61 votes)
601 votes total Vote Now