A Sheldon Rankins bounce-back would go a long way for the New York Jets
New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is an interesting component in the team’s future. Despite a lackluster 2021 season, he has a chance to be one of the team’s biggest reasons for success in 2022.
Analyzing Rankins got me thinking on a broader level about some of our flaws as a football community when it comes to projecting the future outlook of NFL teams.
Forgive me for the long-winded pondering that’s to come – I promise this will all circle back to Rankins. His current status exemplifies some important things about team development in the NFL and I wanted to use him as an avenue to discuss them.
Without further ado, let’s think a little bit about the growth curves of NFL teams before coming full circle and discussing what all of this has to do with Rankins.
Thinking about why NFL teams experience growth and decline
When a new NFL season dawns upon a particular franchise’s fanbase, most fans fixate on the team’s new additions when citing reasons they believe the club will improve. “We won X games last year, so now add Player A, Player B, and Player C, and we’ll definitely win at least a couple more games this year!”, they’ll claim.
But a sports team’s trajectory is never quite that linear. Projecting a team’s outlook is not as simple as taking the previous iteration of the roster and altering your perception of its quality based solely on the additions and subtractions that were made.
A crucial fact is often forgotten: every player’s performance level changes each year.
Most players in the NFL are highly unlikely to perform at the exact same level that they did in the previous season. Assuming they will is the fatal flaw that most people make when trying to predict how teams will perform in the future.
It is important to consider the inevitable fluctuation that will occur for nearly every player on a roster, including both the new players and the carryover players.
While a small handful of players will perform at an extremely similar level, most players will either play significantly better or significantly worse than they did the previous year. This is true in all sports but it is an especially prevalent phenomenon in a small-sample sport like football.
We tend to make the mistake of viewing new players as building blocks that are simply tacked onto a pre-existing LEGO set, one which is completely unchanged except for the new blocks being attached. In other words, it’s assumed that the newcomers are being placed on a roster that – outside of newcomers themselves – will be exactly as strong (or weak) as it was the previous year.
In reality, everything is subject to change.
The core that a team carries from one season to the next is not necessarily going to play at the same level it did in the previous year. The established infrastructure of carryover players could experience progress and get much better as a collective unit, providing substantial improvement to the team’s fortunes through in-house development. Or, some of the team’s core pieces could take unexpected steps backward.
As for the newcomers, there is no guarantee that they will be the upgrades their teams paid them to be. It’s very common to see highly-touted players fall off a cliff after changing teams. But at the same time, some players get even better after finding a new home.
The bottom line is this: NFL players experience a ton of fluctuation in their performance on a year-to-year basis. Because of that, many players on every team will either vastly exceed or vastly fall short of expectations. No perceived upgrade is guaranteed to be an upgrade and no perceived liability is guaranteed to be a liability.
All of that brings us back to New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.
Sheldon Rankins could go from disappointment to hero for the New York Jets
When the Jets signed Rankins to a two-year contract in March 2021, it seemed like a virtual lock that he would provide the Jets with a huge upgrade to their interior pass-rush.
In each of the previous four seasons – which represented every post-rookie-year season of his career – Rankins had ranked at the 80th percentile or better among interior defensive linemen when it came to pressure rate (percentage of pass-rush snaps resulting in pressure).
Rankins was a force on a yearly basis. Still in the heart of his prime at 27 years old, there was no reason to expect he would decline anytime soon.
Out of nowhere, Rankins completely fell off a cliff in 2021. He created pressure on just 5.9% of his pass-rush snaps, ranking at the 32nd percentile among qualified IDL. That was the worst ranking of his career in the category and a far cry from the numbers he put up in New Orleans from 2017-20.
Rankins’ poor run defense was to be expected, as it’s always been a hole in his game. But as a Saint, he always more than made up for his shaky run defense with borderline elite pass-rushing efficiency. He failed to do that in 2021, making him a liability in both phases.
Thus, Rankins became one of the newcomer disappointments that we discussed at the beginning of this article. A player who seemed like a guarantee to improve the Jets’ fortunes actually turned out to be one of their most negatively-impactful players.
Many people, including myself, advocated for the Jets to release Rankins and reap the benefits of the cap space that he’d open up. The Jets elected not to do that, keeping Rankins past the March 20 deadline in which $1.5 million of his 2022 salary ($6.2M cap hit) became guaranteed. This decision makes it likely he will stick around and play the same key role that he played last year.
So, now, Rankins is perceived as a weakness on the Jets’ roster going into 2021. He is one of the reasons why this team’s carryover infrastructure is viewed as having 4-win talent.
But let’s look at the bigger picture. Turn your eyes to the left side of the graphic above. The 2021 season was a major outlier for Rankins in terms of creating pressure.
Considering that he is 28 years old and not dealing with any major injuries, why should we expect 2021 to be the norm for him?
Rankins is an incredible bounce-back candidate for the Jets in 2022. If he can return to his average pass-rushing level from 2017-20 (or even close to it), the Jets’ pass-rush will get a lot better simply from that development alone. The sheer enormity of the difference between his 2021 output and his previous consistency makes this a real possibility.
In Rankins, the Jets have a player who can realistically make a one-year flip from liability to asset. That would allow New York to go from negative to positive at one particular position by making no roster changes.
This type of turnaround from Rankins would be the type of in-house improvement that can play a role in helping a team’s carryover infrastructure prove to be better than expected, as we discussed at the beginning of this article.
Keep an eye out for Sheldon Rankins and more in-house breakthroughs with the New York Jets
Because of his 2021 disappointment and strong candidacy to become a valuable 2022 surprise, I thought Rankins was a great way to exemplify how an NFL team can get worse or better in unexpected ways.
A Rankins turnaround would be immense for the Jets, but he’s not the only candidate to provide New York with some in-house improvement.
The Jets obviously have a large core of second and third-year players who could give the team some upgrades through their personal development. Zach Wilson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore, and Mekhi Becton highlight the most obvious candidates.
As for the veterans, keep an eye on Corey Davis and Quinnen Williams.
Davis had an outlier year with drops in 2021 and could soar close to his 2020 heights simply by returning to the mean in that department.
Williams took a small step back from 2020 to 2021. Still only 24 years old, he has plenty of room to recapture his excellent 2020 production and perhaps soar well beyond it. Not to mention, he may get the chance to play alongside a lot of EDGE talent this year, which would place him in the most optimal environment of his career.
Rounding things out with Rankins – make sure to keep an eye on him as a player who could emerge as a surprising positive-impact piece.
While Rankins went through some surprising struggles in 2021, we cannot forget how good of a player he was in New Orleans. One down year should not override four years of top-20% pass-rushing production. He’s got a shot to be a big-time comeback player in 2022.