How high is the ceiling of the New York Jets’ defensive line after adding pass rush extraordinaire Sheldon Rankins?
Defensive tackle was not one of the prime needs on the New York Jets‘ shopping list entering the 2021 offseason. In fact, it was inarguably the team’s greatest position of strength. With Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, and Folorunso Fatukasi all locked in, very few Jets observers around the world expected the Jets to make any big waves along the interior defensive line in free agency.
What is it about Rankins that made the Jets willing to spend on him despite already being loaded on the interior defensive line? Let’s dive into his game.
Rankins is an excellent pass rusher from the interior. Over the past three seasons, he has 89 pressures on 935 rushes, a pressure rate of 9.5% that places him at the 84th percentile among qualified interior defensive linemen over that span. His career pressure rate is 8.7%, solidly above the 2020 average for IDL (7.0%).
When he stayed healthy enough to start all 32 games for the Saints from 2017-18, Rankins was one of the most productive interior rushers in the league. In 2017, he ranked 13th among interior defensive linemen with 44 pressures, and in 2018, he ranked 15th with 46 pressures.
Rankins only posted 43 pressures from 2019-20 combined, but he missed 10 games over that span and saw his snap count dip from 45.4 snaps per game to 33.5 snaps per game. His efficiency only experienced a slight drop, as he posted a 9.4% pressure rate from 2017-18 versus an 8.8% pressure rate from 2019-20.
You read that right. The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Rankins has been asked to drop into coverage relatively frequently throughout his career, and he’s actually quite good at it.
The Saints had Rankins play in coverage on 38 snaps over his 63 career regular season games, an average of 0.6 snaps per game. Over those 38 snaps, Rankins allowed just 25 passing yards in his direction, an average of 0.66 yards per cover snap that would be incredibly good for a cornerback, let alone a defensive tackle. Rankins has been targeted five times, allowing only two catches while logging an interception, a forced fumble, and a pass breakup.
Rankins’ prowess as a pass rusher (and cover man) stems from his gifts as an athlete. Here are some of his best Combine numbers and where they rank among defensive tackles all-time:
- 118-inch broad jump: 98th percentile
- 34.5-inch vertical jump: 95th percentile
- 7.44s three-cone: 78th percentile
- 5.03s forty-yard dash: 68th percentile
Rankins is 26 years old and will be 27 when the season begins, as he celebrates his birthday on April 2. He’s entering the heart of his prime.
Rankins played in 68 out of 86 possible regular season and playoff games for the Saints, a 79.1% rate. He averaged 12.6 regular season games per year. Over the past two seasons, Rankins missed 10 games.
Just prior to his 2016 rookie season, Rankins suffered a broken fibula that landed him on injured reserve, keeping him out for the first seven games of the year.
Rankins played in every game for the Saints from 2017-18. In 2019, he missed the first three games of the season with an Achilles injury and was later placed on season-ending injured reserve with an ankle injury, missing the final three games of the regular season and the team’s one playoff game.
This past season, Rankins missed four games with a knee injury.
Rankins generally has not been a very active playmaker against the run, and he has not graded well in the phase at Pro Football Focus, either. Pass rushing is clearly his bread-and-butter.
Here is a look at Rankins’ career season-by-season numbers and where they ranked among qualified interior defensive linemen (200+ defensive snaps) that season. Since Rankins has played a substantial number of playoff games (5) and was dominant in a few of them, I decided to include those statistics here. These numbers and rankings include the playoffs for each season.
Playing to Rankins’ strengths and weaknesses, the Saints primarily utilized him on passing downs throughout his tenure in New Orleans. Of Rankins’ 2,706 career defensive snaps (regular season + playoffs), 68.5% of them came on a passing play. The 2020 average for interior defensive linemen was 57.7%.
Rankins usually lines up at either the 3-tech or 4i-tech position, but he can line up anywhere. He’ll play some 2i-tech and 1-tech, and he even played nose tackle on 12.9% of his snaps in 2020. Rankins can occasionally kick outside and play the 5-tech, but that’s rare (1.3% of snaps in 2020).
The athletic behemoth can even line up off the ball every now and then. Rankins lined up at linebacker on 5.8% of his snaps over the last two seasons.
When watching Rankins rush the passer, you can see why he was the 12th overall pick back in 2016. In addition to his tremendous athleticism, he has great technique and a wide array of moves in his toolbox.
From the 3/4i-tech position here, Rankins chops the right guard’s outside arm and then rips through to win the rep and pick up a sack on Mitchell Trubisky.
Rushing against the left guard from a 3-tech alignment, Rankins is able to win inside as he forklifts the guard’s outside arm upward before swiping it away, opening the lane through the A-gap. Rankins gets the sack on Kirk Cousins despite Cousins only taking a three-step drop.
Make no mistake about it – Rankins is not just a finesse guy. Thanks to his tremendous understanding of leverage, he can win with overwhelming power, too.
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