Continuing the offseason series of looking at potential free agent targets for the Houston Texans, we have Sheldon Rankins, DT. If you haven’t read the first article in this series, I looked at OLB/DE Tyus Bowser, check it out!
NFL Free Agent Profile: Sheldon Rankins, New Orleans Saints
Age: 26, Height: 6’2, Weight: 305lbs, 33.3” arms
40 yard dash: 5.03s, 10 yard split: 1.73s, Vertical: 34.5”, Bench Press: 28 reps
Rankins is entering his sixth year in the NFL and the New Orleans Saints have so many free agents to resign, they may have to let Rankins go. An athletic 3-tech defensive tackle, Rankins can provide interior pass rush and will hold his own in the run game. He had a career year in 2018, playing all 16 games, earning 8 sacks, 40 tackles, 12 TFLs, and 25 pressures (stats per Pro Football Reference). Unfortunately, injuries have bitten him and he’s missed 10 games in the past two years. In 2020 he played in 12 games and didn’t rack up the stats he would’ve liked.
Thus, Rankins likely won’t garner a massive deal on the market. However, I think he can be a more productive player if healthy, and has a more consistent role (only played 40% of snaps in 2020) with better scheme usage.
Fit with Texans
As we move to a 4-3 heavy Tampa 2 defense a la Lovie Smith, the need for a 3-tech defensive tackle skyrockets. This is arguably the most important position within the scheme and this is where Rankins is at his best. The 3-tech lines up on the outside shoulder of the opposing guard and it allows them to avoid double teams. You want the guy manning this position to be big, athletic and have the skills necessary to consistently get after the QB.
Rankins is damn good at beating his 1-on-1 blocks, as you can see on this sack. Vs the Bears, Rankins (98) fires off the ball and works outside, towards his natural leverage. Rankins brings up his left hand quickly, then drops it down. He baits the RGs punch, and then quickly chops down with his right hand. Defeating that outside hand is everything, and the guard can only get his hands on the back of Rankins. Not good enough, as Rankins flips his hips towards the QB and gets the sack.
Rankins knows how to set up his rush, much like a premier EDGE rusher. Vs the RG again, he starts an outside rush just like before. However this time he plants on that outside foot and cuts inside, adding a two handed swipe move to defeat the RGs hands. He wins his matchup so quickly and if not for the Center, could’ve had another quick sack.
Sheldon has very advanced hands which help him put pressure on the QB. This is my favorite move of his, as he transitions from a bull rush to a pull-arm over move. First he strikes the RG in the chest and drives his feet forward. This makes the guard want to anchor and give up ground slowly. But Rankins isn’t done, he grips the guard’s jersey and pulls him to the left while simultaneously bringing his left arm over the head of the guard. There’s a high level of nuance involved to master that move, and a big reason why Rankins excites me is his pure level of skill.
Rankins definitely makes his money getting after the QB, and that interior pressure is something the Texans have lacked for seemingly forever. One reason for Rankins drop off in production apart from the injury, is because of how the Saints used him. They run exotic looking fronts at times, and often have Rankins executing stunts or being a distraction that draws double teams. On this play he’s lined up as a Nose Tackle, over the Center. He runs his stunt into the Left Guard, occupying him so that DE 98 can loop behind him and hopefully get open.
He can make an impact here, but it isn’t his bread and butter. Again, he’s much better as a pure 3-tech, and maybe this is where Lovie Smith’s vanilla defenses will actually come in handy.
The other part of Rankins’ game to analyze is his run defense. While he’s not a stud run defender, he’s not a liability either. He may require some freedom to shoot gaps, but he can blow up plays that way.
Rankins is not amazing versus double teams due to his lighter stature and build. Here he gives up a yard at the point of attack of the double, and allows #72 to block his LB. However, he recovers well, getting low and shedding the block, helping on the tackle.
Where Rankins is much better is dealing with single blocks. The Packers are looking to run zone to his side, and Rankins is tasked with the talented Elgton Jenkins. He shoots his hands into Jenkins chest, pushing him back and resetting the LOS. This closes a run lane for the RB, and Rankins also sheds the block to make the shoestring tackle.
While he won’t make them too often, Rankins athleticism allows him to make quick TFLs in the backfield. Lined up vs the LG again with a run to his side, Rankins doesn’t gain outside leverage but instead cuts inside. He uses his elite burst to beat the guard quickly off the snap and blow up the run.
Rankins can have a huge impact for whichever team signs him, if he’s allowed to play 3-tech, taking on 1-on-1 blocks in the run and pass game. Play him to his strengths and you’ll get a stud. Try and fit a square peg in a round hole, and you’ll be regretting your decision to pay him.
Rankins contract will be an interesting one. On one hand, his potential at a premium position is impossible to ignore. On the other hand, only one great season and some injury concerns should lower his price tag. Overthecap projects his yearly average to be just 3.2m. I think this is pretty low for Rankins and he will get a contract around 8m per year.
If I was the Texans GM, I would be willing to give Rankins a double digit contract for two years. While it might seem like a bit of an overpay, we will have to do so for players of Rankins’ caliber. He would be 28 after this proposed contract and could sign another 3-4 year contract to get paid one more time, if he balls out. If he doesn’t live up to his contract, it’s only 2 years, and the Texans can move on. It can be a win-win situation for both.
Proposed contract: 2 years 22m, 13.5m guaranteed.
Rankins fits the Texans timeline pretty well. At 26, a two year deal would be ideal, but if they are confident in his medicals, a 4 year deal could work as well. Having his talents until he’s 30 (when the usual decline starts) would be amazing. I am not fully on board with giving any free agent a long term deal, as the Texans enter a rebuild. However, Rankins is the perfect mix of breakout potential and scheme fit. He is one of the few guys where a long term contract would be worth it.
Retooling the Texans defensive line needs to be priority #1 this offseason. There aren’t many great 3-tech defensive tackles in this free agency class, but Rankins would be perfect. Stay tuned for more of these free agent profiles and follow me on Twitter @Texans_Thoughts for more updates on who I’ll be writing about!