For the first time in the Sean Payton Era, the New Orleans Saints could actually field a defense that strikes fear in opposing offenses. They have a young and talented secondary and have made efforts to improve their front seven with the offseason additions of Demario Davis in free agency and Marcus Davenport in the draft.
While 2017 Defense Rookie of the Year CB Marshon Lattimore and (finally-)Pro Bowl DE Cameron Jordan might be the most talked about players on the Saints defense, it’s actually DT Sheldon Rankins that Bleacher Report has named as the Saints’ biggest breakout candidate:
Basically every New Orleans Saints rookie broke out in 2017, but the team’s top 2016 draft pick is still awaiting his coming-out party.
Will this be the year for defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins?
The 2016 No. 12 overall pick made a much bigger impact as a 16-game starter in 2017 than he did as a rookie reserve in 2016, but his sack total actually dropped from four to two despite the fact he got more work on the edge.
It wasn’t as though he wasn’t creating pressure, though, which is why Rankins knows he has to become a better finisher.
“Now, it’s all about improving, whether it’s just finishing plays,” Rankins said recently, per Herbie Teope of NFL.com. “I had a lot of pressures, a lot of quarterback hits, but now it’s time to turn those into sacks. A lot of tackles around the line of scrimmage, but now it’s time to turn those into (tackles for loss). It’s time to be a leader for this defense.”
Sophomores Alvin Kamara, Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk all already look like stars. So if the Saints are going to take a big step forward in 2018, it would help if third-year early-round picks Rankins, Vonn Bell and David Onyemata took their games to the next level. And it starts with the big 24-year-old Louisville product.
NFL.com has even recognized that Rankins is posed to take more of a leadership role on the Saints defense. Check out this self-aware quote from Rankins to NFL.com:
“Get some film and watch it,” Rankins said emphatically. “I think what I do speaks for itself. I think I’m versatile. I can rush the passer, I can stop the run, I can do whatever the defense needs me to do. I’ll always carry that with me in and out of every season, and my mindset won’t change.”
He’s not wrong. While Rankins finished with a pretty quiet stat line in 2017 (26 total tackles and 2 sacks), he graded out as an above-average Defensive Tackle according to Pro Football Focus. He also added this interception to highlight his year:
Don’t let the 6 rushing TDs make you forget that Sheldon Rankins was out there running like a gazelle pic.twitter.com/xNayXJqnCC— New Orleans Saints (@Saints) November 13, 2017
A returning Alex Okafor and the addition of Marcus Davenport on the defensive line should help Sheldon Rankins generate more pressure in the interior, and Rankins take a big step forward in 2018, watch out.