To put it simply: Sheldon Rankins was one of the unsung heroes of the 2017 New Orleans Saints defense.
The former 1st Round Pick out of Louisville in the 2016 NFL Draft, Rankins suffered an injury before his rookie year that saw him only appear in 9 games. Fully healthy, 2017 saw Rankins show the Saints why they had so much faith in him to select him 12th overall in 2016.
Rankins started in all 16 games for the Saints in 2017, and helped fill the void in the middle of the Saints defensive line after the preseason loss of Nick Fairley. He didn’t exactly light up the scorecard, but Rankins finished with a respectable 16 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 pass defended. As an interior defensive lineman, it’s hard to build up the counting stats or create that highlight reel of film, but Rankins still had his chances to absolutely shine for the Saints last season.
Whether he was asked to rush the passer (asked more frequently of Rankins after the losses to Alex Okafor, Trey Hendrickson, and Hau’oli Kikaha), create interior pressure, or stop runs up the middle, Rankins excelled. He was even asked to drop back into coverage at times during exotic blitz packages from Dennis Allen, and we all remember what happened in Buffalo. With the Saints already up 23-3 in the third quarter, a tipped ball found its way into the hands of the Saints big man who had a convoy in front of him and almost took the INT to the house.
Get the pick.— NFL (@NFL) November 12, 2017
Time for @saints group pic! #GoSaints pic.twitter.com/1jGjlQew7b
But aside from that one highlight, a lot of Saints fans would probably not notice the good work of Rankins in Saints’ defensive front. While the Saints secondary and Cameron Jordan received most of the attention in 2017 (and rightfully so), only Jordan and Defensive Rookie of the Year hopeful Marshon Lattimore finished the season with a higher AV than Rankins in 2017.
Speaking of AV, of the six defensive players selected ahead of Rankins in the 2016 NFL Draft, only Jalen Ramsey and Joey Bosa had a more productive 2017 for their teams. Rankins had a higher AV than the likes of Leonard Floy, Eli Apple, and Vernon Hargreaves III, all picked directly ahead of Rankins in the first round.
And remember, 2017 was Rankins’s first full season in the NFL. If he continues to make strides like this into next season, the Saints have another great, young building block on defense for years to come.