I have never been a scout or a NFL General Manager, but I am willing to watch a ton of football. By watching about 200 snaps of each prospect, we can really get a feel for a player and then know what we are talking about a bit better. It is no exact science, but the NFL hasn't quite figured out drafting either, so we are going to do the best we can.To read more about the 2016 NFL Draft Project, Click Here.
With over two months until 2016 Draft Weekend, it would seem from this distance that the position that is deepest in the top few rounds of the draft this season is defensive tackle. Now, granted, there are 3 types of defensive tackles (3-4 nose, 4-3 1-technique, and 4-3 3-technique), but when it comes to many options of great Top 50 or Top 100 quality, it seems to be those interior dancing bears in the middle.
Sheldon Rankins is a pretty interesting study out of Louisville in this category as a player who absolutely took over the headlines in Mobile at the Senior Bowl in late January as one of the very best interior defensive linemen who was impossible for any of the guards to stay in front of in the drills. He was too quick and too elusive and it showed. This certainly matched some of his best work with Louisville over the last 2 years where he has been a very productive player with 40.5 explosives (sacks + tackles for loss) in 24 games while playing every single position on the defensive line. While he was primarily a 1-technique lined up in the A-Gap between the center and the guard, he would also play the 3-tech and at times in 2015 he would play a large amount of defensive tackle and show his remarkable combination of size and quickness.
To study Rankins, I used the games against Clemson, NC State, Florida State and the bowl game against Texas A&M. He offered plenty of material to consider.
What I liked:The first thing to pop out when you lock in on Rankins is an uncommon amount of disruption from the inside on a guy who uses quickness and relentless battle to cause trouble. Now, he did not always find what he was looking for, but his activity level seems higher than most in his class and he does not give up on a play. He uses long arms to control his blocker and really has an ability to move them at his whim, manipulating a lone blocker out of the way to go get the ball carrier. In pass rush, he could use a few more moves, but once he gets a little crease, he closes fast on his target for his size. Again, there are times where he is moving where you have a hard time believing you are looking at a guy who weighs 300 pounds. He plays low and strong and gets penetration. He possesses high motor and high intelligence as he sniffs out a lot of plays. It appears he is getting held on many occasions. His shifty approach likely leads to this result. Fights hard against double teams which are frequent.
What I did not like:I do wish he was just a bit stronger as there are certainly times where he gets tied up. And, to be fair, he doesn't seem to get in passing lanes as much as you might see as his lower approach helps with leverage but doesn't help in impeding the vision of a QB. He also has lapses where you don't hear from him, but I will happily exchange that for the stretches against Florida State late where he simply took the game over for a few series in a row.
Summary and Potential Fit For the Cowboys: Rankins is a real impressive prospect who will be highly valued on draft day. As we said, he is at a really deep position, but not every defensive tackle has the ability to consistently make plays behind the line of scrimmage like he can. Those players are considered potential 3-techniques, which are rare in this particular draft. Rankins looks like he can fill that role, but has the utility to move up and down your line, which only enhances his potential upside.
You certainly can't quantify one other item I wanted to mention, but he is just a joy to watch play football. He seems to have a characteristic that his mates follow into battle and he can provide that leadership and swagger for the unit. It would certainly be overused to suggest Warren Sapp's name on this front, but he seems like that kind of player.
From a Dallas standpoint, there is no question that he is exactly what they have needed to shore up the middle of that line. In a draft with so many different defensive tackles, the styles should be examined. Would you want a 1-tech that could keep your linebackers clean and take on double team blocks while not budging an inch? Well, that may be more of a job for Alabama's Jarran Reed. But, if you want a 3-tech that might allow Tyrone Crawford to move down to the 1-tech or have interchangeable tackles that can switch even in pre-snap, then Rankins could be your guy.
Of course, the bigger question is whether either of them would be around at #34. They both seem to be of the 1st round quality, but perhaps having as many as 10 defensive tackles in the Top 50 could push some down the board. The odds are that unless the Cowboys would make a trade up, a guy like Rankins is probably gone in Round 1. There are not many with his skills in 2016.