Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ offseason acquisitions, continuing today with defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins.
The 27-year old is listed at 6’2” and 305 pounds and was the 12th overall pick out of Louisville in 2016. In five NFL seasons, he’s started 33 games, racking up 126 tackles and 17.5 sacks. He’s also played in five postseason games, starting three, and posting 13 tackles and a sack.
Rankins was a three-star strongside defensive end prospect in high school, and registered nine sacks in his senior year. He eventually committed to Louisville where he started three games in his first two seasons and was credited with 22 tackles and four sacks.
As a junior, Rankins broke out with 53 tackles and eight sacks to earn third-team all-ACC honors. Then, in 2015, he recorded a career-high 58 tackles after returning for his senior year and earned second-team all-ACC honors.
Having established himself as a probable first round pick, Rankins was selected by the Saints with the 12th overall selection in the 2016 NFL draft. After missing the start of his rookie season with an injury, Rankins came on strong in a rotational role down the stretch, registering four sacks in nine games.
He solidified himself as a full-time starter in 2017 and then racked up career highs in tackles (40) and sacks (eight) in 2018, but the season ended badly as he suffered an injury in the postseason.
Rankins moved back into a reserve role in 2019, as he was initially recovering from the injury and then got injured again in December to land on injured reserve. Although the Saints had exercised his fifth year option, Rankins was also a reserve in 2020 and again missed some time due to injury.
The Jets signed Rankins to a two-year deal worth up to $17 million during the first week of free agency.
Now let’s take a look at what Rankins brings to the table, divided into categories.
Rankins is one of the modern breed of defensive tackles who is short and powerful. He actually measured at closer to 6’1” at his pro day, but the days where that was seen as too short for a defensive tackle are long gone.
At the combine he put together a terrific workout, where he was above average across the board with a 5.03 in the 40-yard dash, 28 bench press reps and good agility numbers for his size. However, his most impressive numbers were his explosiveness numbers as he posted a 34.5” vertical and a 118” broad jump.
Equally, his quickness, explosiveness and power are all apparent from his on-field footage.
While Rankins has primarily played as a 3-technique defensive tackle, he has the ability to play all over the defensive line. He’ll often get reps at the nose tackle position or lined up opposite a tackle as a 5-technique.
It’s rarer that he’ll line up outside the tackle - although he was a defensive end in high school - but he has done it from time to time at the NFL level, including at the end of the 2017 season where he saw regular reps in a defensive end role for about a month due to Alex Okafor’s season-ending injury.
He began his high school career in the running back position as a freshman.
Rankins is a player with a relentless motor who will keep working and commands a lot of attention from the offensive line. Here’s an example of a play where he kept working to the football after initially being blocked.
One concern is that he only played 30 percent of the defensive snaps in 2019 and 40 percent in 2020, although this was affected by injuries and the Jets would probably be happy with him in a rotational role anyway since they already have two proven starters in Quinnen Williams and Folorunso Fatukasi. Rankins had played over 800 snaps back in 2017, so he has handled a starter’s workload in the past.
Rankins entered the league with a reputation as a tremendous run defender, but has arguably been more known for his pass rushing at the pro level.
He hasn’t been that productive in terms of stuffing runs himself, other than in 2018 which was his best season against the run. Nevertheless, he still contributes by helping to bottle up runs with his ability to move laterally, shoot gaps and take on double teams.
One issue with Rankins against the run is that he has an attacking style, which will see him using his quickness to try and shoot a gap or beat a lineman across his face. This can lead to him taking himself out of plays or allowing offensive linemen to use his momentum against him.
Rankins is an impactful pass rusher, although much of his impact is in terms of taking on double teams to create opportunities for his teammates to create pressure. Cameron Jordan specifically singled him out for doing this a few years ago.
In terms of his pressure numbers, they’ve generally been good but not elite. He’s never been in the top 10 for interior linemen in terms of pressure percentage, although he was just outside in 2018. His sack numbers have been solid though, headlined by a career-best eight that year. In 2020, he had a career-low 1.5 sacks, although he did add nine quarterback hits in 12 games.
As you’d expect from someone so stocky and powerful, he can be a menace as a bull rusher.
As noted, Rankins is short, but he has adequate length and displays excellent technique in the trenches. While he’s often just used as a bull rusher, he has some real ability in terms on one-on-one pass rush moves, headlined by his spin move.
This play also gives a good sense of his technique as a rusher. It’s essentially three moves in one, as he transitions in the blink of an eye from a bull rush move, into a bull jerk move and then uses an arm-over move to separate cleanly.
He shows good technique against the run too. On this play, he keeps his outside arm free as he moves laterally to make the stop.
Rankins hasn’t been a particularly productive tackler, which stands to reason because he’s played more snaps as a pass rusher and often helps to bottle up runs rather than making the tackle himself.
He generally hasn’t had issues with missed tackles, entering 2020 with just three in his career, although he ended up with a career-high four last season. These weren’t all necessarily negative plays though.
He had two forced fumbles in college and has three at the NFL level, including this one that iced a big win.
As a rule, interior defensive linemen hardly ever drop into coverage and generally, when they do, don’t do much other than sit in a shallow zone so someone else can rush. Rankins offers more than this, though, as he’s shown an ability to make some nice plays in coverage.
He had two interceptions in college and also had one in 2017 as he dropped off and reacted to a deflected pass that he almost returned for a touchdown. He also dropped into the passing lane to break up a pass on one play.
Despite being short, Rankins batted down three passes in college and also did that once in a game last year. He shows good vision and awareness to get his hands in the passing lane.
Even when not dropping into coverage, Rankins will contribute by dropping off to hustle and get in on tackles against short passes.
Rankins is regarded as an intelligent player who displays excellent vision, awareness and anticipation. Jordan called him “the mastermind of the defense” in New Orleans.
As already noted, he is more comfortable in coverage than most defensive linemen and he regularly anticipates and disrupts screen passes.
Rankins doesn’t seem to make many mental errors, but has had four pre-snap penalties for being offside or in the neutral zone at the snap in his career so far.
Rankins hasn’t contributed much on special teams, despite being called on to rush the occasional punt or field goal attempt. With his lack of height, he might be most useful in that role as a penetrator that can create an opportunity for someone else.
Rankins is a player who has exhibited leadership, toughness and a strong work ethic throughout his career. As a draft prospect, he was dubbed “Mr. Boring” by some sources because he was all about football and apparently interviewed really well at the combine.
In college, Rankins was a two-year captain, and then became a leader during his third year as a pro. As he came back from his injury, his teammates voted him as the winner of the team’s Ed Block Courage award in 2019, which is given to a player who persevered through adversity.
In terms of on-field discipline, his only two personal fouls at the NFL level were for roughing the passer.
Rankins’ career began when he broke his fibula in his rookie training camp, forcing him to start his rookie year on injured reserve, albeit with a designation to return. However, once he came back from that, he played 41 straight games, including 32 starts in a row.
However, in the 2018 postseason, he suffered a torn Achilles and wasn’t fully recovered in time for the start of the 2019 season. He made his debut in week four and played 10 games before being placed on injured reserve with three weeks to go with another ankle injury.
This time, it was determined that Rankins needed surgery on the other ankle to prevent another Achilles tear. He returned to play 12 games in 2020 but wasn’t ever back to 100 percent and also spent four weeks on injured reserve with a knee issue.
In February, Rankins acknowledged he hadn’t been fully healthy in 2020 but said he is feeling like himself again and now has the bounce back in his step.
Rankins played in 4-3 and 3-4 systems in Louisville and has played all over the line at the pro level. While the Jets may look to exploit this versatility at times, his most likely role in Robert Saleh’s system will be as an interior disruptor.
If all goes well, the Jets may opt to employ Williams, Fatukasi and Rankins as a three-man rotation, sharing the majority of the reps on the defensive interior equally between them. Alternatively, the Jets could see Fatukasi in the game in run defense situations with Rankins replacing him on passing downs.
With the Saints, Rankins was a former teammate of current Jets defensive backs Justin Hardee and Saquan Hampton.
This move follows the pattern of bringing in a player with good football character and a high-pick pedigree, but potentially at a bargain price. The Jets will hope his downturn in production over the past two years was influenced by injury issues that may not be permanent.
If Rankins can stay healthy, he could be a terrific addition whose presence on the inside should create more opportunities for the likes of Carl Lawson to generate pressure at a high rate.
Rankins’ contract has been structured in such a way as the Jets will be able to get out of it at the end of this season if he disappoints or can’t stay healthy. However, the Jets will be hoping he can be an impact player to elevate this defense.