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2016 NFL Draft: Sheldon Rankins and the Lions are a perfect match

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If the Detroit Lions choose to upgrade their defensive line in the first round, they should look no further than Louisville's Sheldon Rankins.

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This week, we're moving back to the defensive line and focusing on a player that is finally getting the recognition he deserves: Louisville DT, Sheldon Rankins. Amidst the love affair that was last year's defensive tackle class, Sheldon Rankins was the highest-graded defensive interior lineman by Pro Football Focus in 2014. He probably would have been one of the first D-linemen selected last year, had he declared.

... as Rankins is coming on strong and looking to regain the top spot he held in 2014 when he was our highest-graded defensive interior lineman (+55.4 grade with 39 QB pressures). In 2015, Rankins has again shown his strength, quickness, and playmaking ability. Over the two-game stretch against Florida State and Boston College, Rankins had a +13.8 grade with 12 total QB pressures, including a scoop-and-score TD against BC in which he hurdled a player on his way to the end zone. Rankins is the third overall 3-4 DE in run-stop percentage and second in pass-rush productivity with 25 total QB pressures.

Sheldon Rankins (Louisville)
6-foot-2, 304 pounds 
Senior

Rankins' draft stock has soared into the first round and will likely stay there. Be prepared to see a plethora of mock drafts that will link him to Detroit. In fact, he already has been linked to the Lions. During Senior Bowl week, Josh Katzenstein of The Detroit News reported that the Lions had planned a formal sit down with Rankins. For those that are still hung up over Aaron Donald (it's time to move on, guys), maybe this will cheer you up:

At 6-foot-1 and 5/8, Rankins said he tries to model his game after other shorter tackles like Tennessee’s Jurrell Casey, Cincinnati’s Geno Atkins and St. Louis’ Aaron Donald. In South team practice, he easily beat Michigan center Graham Glasgow with a spin move.

Now I wouldn't jump the shark and give Rankins an Aaron Donald pro comparison, but there are similarities there. They're both undersized and they're both remarkably quick for their position. Rankins is going to blow up the combine and solidify himself as a first-round prospect. You can count on it.

Games Tackles Solo Assisted Sacks TFL PD FF
2012 9 5 3 2 1.0 1.0
2013 10 15 11 4 3.0 4.0 2 1
2014 13 53 31 22 8.0 13.5 1 1
2015 13 58 28 30 6.0 13.0 1

Sheldon Rankins was a very productive collegiate athlete. You don't see many of the top players stick around for four years and dominate as a Junior and a Senior. The scary thing is that these stats are entirely misleading. Rankins was completely misused in Louisville's system and still jumped out on film, putting up impressive numbers. He proved during this year's Senior Bowl practices that he is nearly unblockable 1-on-1 and you're going to need to put an extra body on him unless you want your quarterback to look like Tony Romo a broken china doll.

For lack of a better phrase, Rankins made everyone his bitch during Senior Bowl practices. Unfortunately, he saw his week end early due to a sprained knee and was forced to miss the Senior Bowl game itself.

Film

I mentioned that Rankins was misused in Louisville's scheme and his performance during Senior Bowl 1-on-1s proves it. He's at his best when asked to shoot one-gap while using his quickness to his advantage. Instead, Louisville regularly implemented him in their 3-4 looks as a two-gapping DE and well... he was pretty solid in that role too.

Relentlessness/High-motor

Rankins' tape can be misleading because I truly don't believe his best position in the NFL is where he was most used in Louisville's defense, but you can still get a feel for the type of player he is. For example, Sheldon Rankins is a relentless son of a gun.

Sheldon Rankins will not give up on a play. He has no problem chasing down running backs and he gives his full effort. This is exactly what the Lions love to see and it's what they were preaching about Gabe Wright last year. Martin Mayhew may have left town, but it's the coaches that tell the GM what type of player they want on their team.

Run stuffer

Rankins was a very good run defender for Louisville. He's strong and has decent arm length for his size, allowing him to consistently stack and shed blocks like he does in the play above. He also exhibits great awareness by keeping his head up to locate the ball and shed his man at the perfect time to meet the ball carrier for minimal gains and losses.

Quickness

Rankins' aforementioned quickness is his best weapon. As a one-gap penetrator, he consistently times the snap well and gets low to win the leverage battle. In the play above, he's unable to wrap up and finish for the sack, but he does show off his quickness and doesn't lose any momentum while swimming past the center.

Let's go back to Rankins' eye-opening performance in Mobile.

Weaknesses

The most notable concern with Rankins is his size. It can definitely be a deterrent to some teams that have a specific profile in mind and are avoiding smaller interior lineman, but if we've learned anything from guys like Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald in the past, this shouldn't come as that huge of a concern when a player obviously has skills.

My legitimate concern is when Rankins is unable to win immediately off the snap. If his first effort is stymied, then he often has a tough time regaining his composure and winning with his second effort. This also became apparent in the run game. If Rankins was unable to immediately win the leverage battle, then bigger and stronger O-lineman tend to get the best of him and erase him from the play.

How He Fits

Sheldon Rankins is a perfect fit for Detroit's 4-3 attacking one-gap scheme. His best position in the NFL is going to be as a one-gap penetrating DT in the 3-tech, though he does have some versatility and can serve as a 5-tech in certain packages. The Lions need help on the defensive line and they need it badly. Haloti Ngata, Tyrunn Walker and Khyri Thornton are all set to hit free agency, and the only DTs that are currently under contract for the Lions are Gabe Wright, Caraun Reid and Kerry Hyder.

After stealing the hearts of so many scouts and analysts down in Mobile, Alabama, Rankins has spiraled his draft stock into the first round. He's going to test very well at the combine as well, so if the Lions wish to select him, they're going to need to spend the No. 16 overall pick on Rankins (if he's even there).

Grade: 1st round

Games watched: 2014 vs. Kentucky, 2015 vs. Texas A&M, 2015 vs. Florida State, 2015 vs. Boston College

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2016 NFL Draft profiles: DL Jonathan Bullard (Florida), LB Reggie Ragland (Alabama), WR Mike Thomas (Southern Mississippi), DL Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss), OT Taylor Decker (Ohio State)S Justin Simmons (Boston College)