Sheldon Rankins Would Allow Oakland Raiders To Multiply Impact of Greatest Strength on Defense
Picking in the 11-15 range of the the draft has proven to be profitable over recent years. Odell Beckham and Aaron Donald both went there in 2014. Sheldon Richardson and Star Lotulelei did in 2013. Dontari Poe, Fletcher Cox, Michael Floyd and Michael Brockers were four of the five in 2012, Bruce Irvin wasn’t a bad fifth option either. 2011’s stacked class had J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn going between 11 and 15.
This doesn’t mean that you are always guaranteed quality players when you’re picking at that point in the first round, every draft class is unique, but it does highlight how the best players from a class can often fall out of the top 10.
Sheldon Rankins will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of the many defensive linemen who are listed above. Rankins is regularly mocked in the 11-15 range. He would fit with the Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints and Oakland Raiders, he could even fit with the Tennessee Titans depending on how they want to approach their defense. Rankins would have the most impact if he landed with the Raiders though.
Because of their moves in free agency and the youthful base that established itself last season, the Raiders are being celebrated a lot this offseason. Many are anticipating that they will take a step forward, possibly into the playoffs or to the top of the AFC West. While that optimism appears somewhat premature still, it’s true that the Raiders are heading in the right direction and have made significant strides.
The roster still has some significant holes to fill on the defensive side though. Rankins could not only fill one of those needs but help to minimize the impact of others.
General Manager Reggie McKenzie focused his investments on the offensive side of the ball to create areas of strength. He should do the same on the defensive side, adding another piece to the front seven instead of trying to directly address the team’s issues in the secondary. By adding Rankins, the Raiders would be giving their defensive front a much-needed interior rusher. His disruptiveness would add another layer to a front that already boasts Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
Mario Edwards Jr could give them an impactful front four to rely on, that’s without even considering the expected return of Aldon Smith later in the year. Edwards Jr’s status is uncertain because of a neck condition, so Rankins would either be coming in to fill his role or pair alongside him on obvious passing downs.
Having four individual pass rushers who can win their matchups will allow the Raiders to be a passive defense. They could improve their secondary by tightening spaces and simplifying assignments by crowding coverages with seven defenders. You don’t need defensive backs who can win in one-on-one coverage in space if you can disrupt the pocket within the timing of the play while rushing only four defenders after the quarterback.
Rankins is primarily a pass rusher. He has been compared to Aaron Donald during the draft process. While that comparison isn’t realistic or fair to Rankins, it does highlight just how impressive a prospect he is.
What separates the two players is Donald’s physical talent. Donald is more explosive off the line of scrimmage and shows off more balance and power while working through contact. That doesn’t mean that Rankins is slow off the line or lacking anything physically, it’s just that Donald was/is special in those areas. Rankins will win with his physical talent but he also shows off impressive hand usage for a player entering the league.
Because of his skill set, Rankins will be comfortable moving around the defensive line. He will never be a traditional edge rusher who can bend around offensive tackles or set the edge full-time as a run defender, but he will allow the Raiders to continue to be multiple upfront. When the Raiders signed Bruce Irvin, they added an edge defender who can play off the line of scrimmage as a strongside linebacker, in a two-point stance as a 3-4 outside linebacker or in a three-point stance as a 4-3 end.
If the Raiders want to continue to use both 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, while shifting into nickel in obvious passing situations, then Rankins can fit in all packages.
The team’s base defense will feature Dan Williams at nose tackle. Rankins and Edwards as your interior defenders against the run wouldn’t be disastrous but they are definitely better suited to be inside on obvious passing situations. The alignment of the defense as a whole would hinge on how Williams lines up. In the above image, he is square across from the center, two-gapping. This pushes Rankins into the four spot, head up on the offensive tackle.
Although not the best use of his talents, this isn’t a spot where Rankins would be a liability. He’d be surrounded by strong run defenders and, more importantly, this is an alignment he won’t be put in on a regular basis.
The NFL is moving towards nickel as base. Pass rushers are prioritized over defenders who only excel against the run because of the receiver-heavy packages that offenses are relying on. If the Raiders play more than 500 snaps in this type of alignment next year it will be a surprise. Rankins’ penetration on passing plays will largely overshadow his play against the run.
Standing at 6’1″ and 299 lbs, Rankins is going to concede some size to guards in the NFL. This can be a problem in specific situations, but it can also be a positive when trying to create leverage. It’s tougher to control a defensive tackle who has such a low center of gravity with the lower-body power and upper-body bulk to hold his own. In the above play, Rankins begins the play aligned inside of the left guard.
The left guard is responsible for him so this is a very tough block for him to execute. Rankins makes it tougher by being quick to attack the space vacated by the center. The guard must try to knock Rankins off his path into the pocket, but Rankins is too balanced and strong for him to. The defensive tackle hooks his inside arm and naturally stays low so he is an extremely difficult target to engage or redirect.
On this play from the same game, you can see Rankins’ comfort in adjusting his body to work around offensive linemen while also using his hands. He beats the center with incredible ease before bouncing off a terrible block attempt from the running back. Although he can’t finish the play once again, it was an impressive move by the quarterback in space, he has already disrupted the design of the play through two blockers. He did so with great speed also.
Disruption is what matters most for interior defenders. Quarterbacks in the NFL typically react poorly to pressure up the middle. Few can comfortably adjust with any kind of consistency. They will react because the pressure comes directly in their line of sight more often than not, but that reaction destroys the design and forces the quarterback to be creative while buying more time for the other pass rushers to close on him.
If you are disrupting the pocket quickly as part of a four-man rush, the quarterback will have to be creative against a coverage that features many more defenders than receivers.
Rankins doesn’t have extraordinarily heavy hands but his lower-body power will allow him to dominate taller NFL linemen with his bull rush when he can get beneath their attempts to engage him. He will also offer a comfort moving laterally or turning to accelerate as part of stunts with Mack or Irvin coming around off the edge. His versatility as a whole would give the Raiders at least three pass rushers who could beat one-on-one blockers in a variety of different ways.
As the Denver Broncos showed this past season, that is an extremely valuable arsenal to boast.