Sheldon Rankins is an absolute force in the interior, and his NFL future looks bright. But Rankins’s short stature appears to be giving teams pause about his long-term ceiling.
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With the 2016 NFL draft just weeks away, it’s time for all 32 NFL teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.
The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and explain why they’re slotted as such. As we approach the top 10, the scouting reports get deeper. We continue with the next in a long line of recent draft prospects ready to test the NFL’s biases regarding height among defensive linemen.
11. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville
Height: 6' 1" Weight: 299
Bio: A three-star recruit out of Eastside High in Covington, Ga., Rankins saw action on the Louisville defense from his freshman year, but it was his junior season in 2014 when he really put himself on the map: He tallied 31 solo tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks as a bowling ball-shaped multi-position force. To prove that his junior campaign was no fluke, Rankins came back last season with 28 solo tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six more sacks. He’s been allowed to thrive in Todd Grantham’s 3–4 base defense, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity to become an every-down player. Though he missed the Senior Bowl game with a mild knee injury, he was dominant enough during the week of practice to make everyone stand up and take notice.
“Just going in, I heard a lot of people questioning my ability to win a one-on-one pass rush,” Rankins said at the combine of his Senior Bowl experience. “I think a lot of guys knew that I could play the run, I was stout against the run, things like that. But a lot of people questioned my ability to win one-on-one pass rush. So going into that week, I just wanted to be explosive, be violent, go win one-on-one pass rushes when I got the chance to win those. And I feel like I did so. I feel like I went down there with the mind-set to go out each day in practice and dominate. And, obviously, the week didn’t end the way I wanted it to, not being able to play in the game. But the days I was able to practice against great competition, I feel like I held my own.”
Rankins set the tone for the defense throughout his last two years with the Cardinals, and he could be ready to do the same in the NFL sooner than later.
Strengths: Plays the three- and five-tech positions with equal effectiveness, which makes him a versatile chip for those 3–4 and hybrid teams unconcerned with his height. Can also play one-tech and head-over nose in rotation. Switches between one-gap and two-gap schemes with no problem. Broad, stocky player who uses tree-trunk legs to generate a fearsome bull-rush off the snap from a low stance—can latch on and drive a guard right into the pocket. Uses his strong hands aggressively and to great effect. Will use initial punch and rip move to separate from blockers and accelerates nicely around to pressure. Gets skinny as a one-gap penetrator and uses his power to knife through double-teams.
Has the foot speed and lateral agility to switch gaps, and he’s very persistent to find the open space. Resets quickly when he’s bent back and will drive forward with second effort. Finds another gear in open space to the quarterback. Is always looking to disrupt—if he can’t beat his man straight up, he’ll move to the side and look to collapse an area. Keeps his eyes on running backs and mobile quarterbacks from a mush-rush, and tracks runners well in the open field.
Has a great ability to jump gaps very quickly and streak into the backfield to make a stop—Rankins can catch blockers unaware with his gap speed. Slips off blocks and will wade through multiple opponents to get to the ball if necessary. Drives to the ballcarrier and wraps up quickly and powerfully. Stacks and sheds with the best of them. Fiery competitor with a motor that runs on high through the entire game. Refuses to concede any physical battle. Has the agility to drop into coverage—picked off two passes in 2014 and can be an asset on screens and other short stuff.
Weaknesses: While some will ding Rankins for his height, his arm length may be the bigger problem at the next level. He does have a fearsome punch, but he sometimes struggles to latch his arms out to provide that kind of push. Will be more of a run stopper than a pass rusher if he plays end, as his arm length issues are more pronounced against elite left tackles, and he doesn’t yet have a signature pass-rush move. Created most of his pressure through speed and power and will need to expand his technique. Shows some signs of rip and swim moves, but needs to develop them further. Rankins occasionally comes off the snap late and can be washed out of the play as a result. Pad level can get inconsistent at times, and against better tackles outside, that can be a problem. Needs to do a better job of analyzing gaps against slide protection so he doesn’t get overwhelmed by the momentum.
Conclusion: It’s kind of amazing: In a sport where “low man wins” is a common mantra, and several defensive tackles who are shorter than the norm have emerged as dominant players, Rankins is still slipping down some boards because he’s not 6' 3". His body type makes him an ideal power three-tech in a 4–3 defense, but he’s a player who could succeed in any hybrid defense with the right structure and technique work. From Geno Atkins to Mike Daniels to Jurrell Casey to Aaron Donald to Grady Jarrett, there’s a long list of interior D-linemen who were relatively undervalued coming out of college because they didn’t fit an arbitrary height requirement. Those players have made the critics look foolish, and Rankins has every bit of the potential to be the next one to do so.
Pro Comparison: Jurrell Casey, Titans (third round, 2011, USC)