METAIRIE, La. (AP) Lately, Saints rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins has been reminding New Orleans' interior offensive lineman that they'd be doing him a considerable favor by blocking as hard as they possibly can against him during practice.
The 12th overall pick in Iast spring's draft out of Louisville still has yet to make his NFL regular season debut because he fractured his left fibula during training camp in mid-August. But that is expected to change this weekend in san Francisco, when Rankins will be eligible to play for the first time.
''When I'm going up against guys, I always tell them, `Just give me a real look. I haven't done anything for a while, so I want as close to full speed without trying to kill each other as I can get,''' Rankins said. ''They've been good about that.''
Meanwhile, the offensive linemen who've been indulging Rankins' request for difficult practice repetitions say the rookie has been wearing them out.
''To come back the way he has within the amount of time - just the timeframe and to have as much strength as he has is really incredible right now,'' Saints guard Tim Lelito said. ''He's basically picked up right where he left off. There's a reason why he was a first-round draft pick, honestly. He's quick, he's strong, got great hands ... so I'm excited to hopefully see him out there in some live situations.''
Saints coach Sean Payton said Rankins is ''getting around well and we anticipate this is the week for him'' to come back.
Rankins said coaches have begun rotating him into the first-team defense during 11-on-11 work in practice so he is up to speed with this week's game plan.
''The recovery is going as expected. I haven't had any setbacks, getting my strength back, getting my endurance back,'' Rankins said. ''It's fun to be out there playing. I feel fine. I feel I can be effective. If I didn't feel I could be effective, I wouldn't put myself out there.''
Saints coaches have said they see Rankins eventually being an every-down player because he is versatile enough to play several spots along the defensive line as either a run stuffer or pass rusher. But Rankins figures that in terms of stamina and experience, he would blame coaches for easing him into his first few games in a more limited role.
''Definitely coming off an injury as long as I've been off, you definitely don't want to put the cart before the horse, so to speak,'' Rankins said. ''You want to do what you can but don't overexert yourself too much. You don't want to be out there trying to overcompensate and those other issues. So I think they're going to do a good job of keeping an eye on me, giving me what I can handle, and I'll make the most of those'' snaps.
The Saints' defense could use help. The unit ranks 28th in the NFL, allowing 397.4 yards per game, and 31st in points allowed at 30.7 per game.
In his last two seasons at Louisville, Rankins registered 14 sacks and 26 + tackles for losses.
When Lelito was asked if Rankins looked ready to apply stress on the front of an opposing team's pass-protection pocket, he responded, ''"Absolutely. He can put stress anywhere. The front of the pocket, the side of the pocket. Wherever you want to put him he's putting stress. He's definitely someone that you're going to have to account for.''
Notes: S Kenny Vaccaro, who sat out Wednesday's practice with knee soreness, returned Thursday on a limited basis. ... Three other players who sat out Wednesday's practice - T Terron Armstead (Knee), LB Dannell Ellerbe (Quad) and LB James Laurinaitis (Quad) - also did not practice on Thursday. ... RB and special teams regular Daniel Lasco, who was not on Wednesday's injury report, missed Thursday's practice. ... LB Stephone Anthony (Hamstring), CB Delvin Breaux (Fibula), WR Jake Lampman (Knee), CB Sterling Moore (Abdomen) and C Max Unger (Shoulder) were listed as limited in practice.
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