Watching Sheldon Rankins play in five games, I like him a lot, but I haaaaated the way Louisville used him for much of those games. Which isn't to say they used him wrong. Sometimes you have to put guys in positions that aren't necessarily most favorable to them, but are most favorable to the team when you're trying to win ball games.
I get that.
I just selfishly wish I could have seen Rankins play defensive tackle exclusively rather than anywhere else on the line.
It's not that Rankins was awful at defensive end or anything. He's a little shorter and not quite as fast as you usually need to be to kick ass on the edge the way he kicked ass inside. Hell, he was just a lot more fun to watch at defensive tackle.
The Auburn game was particularly frustrating to watch for me because it seemed like damn near the only times they didn't have Rankins at defensive end, they had him at tackle stunting wide for contain on the opposite side of a blitz. There just weren't many opportunities for Rankins to make plays in that situation.
Dah well, such is life.
I doubt Rankins will have to worry about playing outside much on the next level. What I see when I watch him on tape is a three-technique in a 4-3 defense or pass-rushing nose tackle, and I think he could probably thrive in either role in the NFL.
Before I go on, I know that Rankins at 6'1 and 299 pounds is around the same height and weight as Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but that's where any comparisons between those two should end. Rankins is quick for a guy his size. However, Donald ran a 4.68 at the combine, which would have been one of the top times for a defensive end this year. Donald also had elite technique coming out, something that's rare to see in collegiate defensive linemen. It isn't fair to Rankins to mention them in the same breath.
That doesn't mean that Rankins can't get after it in his own way. He plays strong on tape and he has an impressive bull rush with that natural leverage his height affords him. He can also put guards in the blender when he chooses to beat them with finesse.
He has relatively long arms for his size and he knows how to use them both as a run defender and as a pass rusher. That's something most shorter defensive linemen have to be able to do, otherwise they end up getting engulfed by those huge NFL offensive linemen.
I also liked that against the run, Rankins consistently showed really good instincts and blocking scheme recognition when teams tried to run misdirection plays like counters and traps. When they tried to single-block him, Rankins was also able to do a good job of getting the offensive linemen pushed back into the backfield on a regular basis.
That led to Rankins being in on quite a few tackles near the line of scrimmage, which is what you want to see out of a productive defensive tackle, especially an undertackle/three-technique. Undertackles are meant to blow shit up in the backfield and cause chaos on the other side of the line of scrimmage, whether that means making the play themselves or setting up one of their teammates to make the play.
Rankins certainly showed that when he got a chance to play at three-technique that he definitely fits that bill.
Where I did have some concerns about Rankins as a run defender was when he had to try to take on double teams. Look, double teams fucking suck, OK? Most defensive linemen under 350 pounds absolutely despise them whether they admit it or not. But if you're going to play defensive tackle in the NFL, especially any version of a nose tackle, you're going to get doubled. So you had better find a way stand your ground.
Otherwise, you can bet your ass that you will see a steady dose of double teams for the whole rest of your (likely abbreviated) career. I thought Rankins would be a little better at holding the point with that natural leverage, especially since he looked plenty strong against base blocks. However, offensive linemen were able to get more movement on him than I would have liked to see.
That doesn't mean he can't be a 4-3 nose tackle. It just means he is going to have to learn better technique at taking on a double team if he wants to play well in that spot. I still like him as a 4-3 nose tackle because of his pass-rush ability, even when lined up in the A-gap.
Rushing the A-gap is one of the hardest things in football. When the guard and center aren't doubling you, there's still usually the running back looking for you, too. Other times, a nose will be cocked toward the center and the guard will just come down hard and slam him from the side or behind. Not real easy to keep your balance or get up field with all that going on.
But Rankins showed a good knack for it, which means that even if he struggles as an undertackle, there is still a possibility he can be a long-time starter at nose tackle who can play all three downs and get pressure. Failing that he could always be a pass-rushing swing tackle like what the Seahawks have done with one of their defensive tackles the past few years.
Situational rusher inside who could get five or more sacks a year? I could definitely see Rankins being a beast in that role, if not a more expanded one.
What I think will hurt Rankins' draft stock some is that he probably isn't a fit for most 3-4 defenses, even though that's what he played in college. Put another way, he could make do as a 3-4 linemen, but I don't think 3-4 teams will value his skills nearly as much as 4-3 teams will. That could cause him to slide a little bit.
But you know what? That really won't matter in terms of how I expect Rankins to play. As long as he goes to a team with a 4-3 attacking style defense, I expect him to excel at rushing the passer inside. He may not be on Aaron Donald's level (who is?), but Rankins has the potential to be a very good defensive tackle. Maybe even a Pro Bowler eventually.
Hopefully he ends up on a team and in a defensive scheme where he can really showcase his talents.
Since I don't have access to all-22 for college football games, I use the next best thing for my draft profiles, Draft Breakdown. They the TV copy of a bunch of top prospects already cut up and ready to go. Also, their site is compatible with the new NoHuddle app, which turns your cell phone into a "cowboy clicker," which is pretty damn neat. For the purposes of this breakdown, I watched former Louisville defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins against Auburn, Clemson, NC State, Florida State and Texas A&M. Those represented the first, third, fifth, sixth and 13th games on Louisville's schedule last season, respectively.