As the top pick last year (#12 overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft for the New Orleans Saints, it's more than safe to say that former University of Louisville and rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins came into the League with "high expectations".
But when a leg injury just a few weeks into Training Camp forced Rankins to miss the first 7 games of the 2016 regular season, it's also safe to say that those high expectations were met with some understandable disappointment.
However, as Canal Street Chronicles managing editor and columnist John J. Hendrix noted in his outstanding article on Thursday: it’s tempting to imagine what things would have been like had Rankins been able to play in all 16 games for New Orleans, but yet there’s still very little that you should be upset about --- and especially if you just happen to be a fan of the Saints, of course.
That's because Rankins still managed to notch 4 sacks, 6 QB pressures / hits, 20 total tackles, a forced fumble, and a running play "stuff" behind the line of scrimmage, while rushing from the interior of the Saints D-Line in the limited action (9 games) he played in over the remainder of the 2016 season.
Hendrix also noted that Rankins was the receiver of some 'good news' in the recent off-season, after the Saints re-signed veteran DT Nick Fairley. When the two are paired together, Hendrix says that the underrated tandem work very well together in unison while they're "down in the trenches".
Therefore, the odds would seem to be in Rankins' favor as he enters into his 2nd NFL season, to be poised for a "break out" year in 2017 --- and establish himself as one of the premier young defensive tackles in the sport of Pro Football.
So besides the injury, why was it that Rankins' rookie season --- in the eyes of some observers and analysts that cover the NFL --- appeared to come up a bit shorter 'expectations-wise', than had been hoped?
Part of that can be placed on "The Aaron Donald Factor".
Last year during the pre-draft process leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, a handful of NFL scouts, team executives, and analysts that cover the League made the comparison of the then-college prospect Rankins, to Donald --- the 3-time All-Pro for the Los Angeles Rams and one of the game's best (if not THE best) defensive tackles of this current generation of young stars.
Like Donald, Rankins is considered "undersized" (6-foot-1 on his "tippy toes" and 299 pounds) for an interior defensive lineman but has the ability to dominate a game once he gets going.
Donald, who was a similar size (6-1, 285 pounds) coming out of the 2014 NFL Draft, ended up going 13th overall to the Rams, and has become one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL because of his remarkable athleticism and quickness.
However, that may be where the comparisons end in that sense, since Donald has been on a torrid pace statistics-wise since entering the League.
For starters, even if you projected Rankins' stats for a full season last year, they'd probably come up short of the numbers put up by Donald when he was named the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year --- when in 12 total starts that year, he tallied 9 sacks, 44 QB pressures / hits, 48 combined tackles, 2 forced fumbles and a batted down pass in his very first season (when the Rams were still in St. Louis).
But if Rankins has anything this upcoming 2017 season like the 2nd year that Aaron Donald did in his second year, then 2017 would indeed be a year to remember for Saints fans.
In that 2015 season with the Rams (in their final season in St. Louis before moving back to Los Angeles), Donald started all 16 games and finished that season with a total of 11 sacks, 37 QB pressures / hits, 39 combined tackles, a pass defended, and a fumble recovery. He once again was selected to be a starter in the Pro Bowl selection for a 2nd straight year, and was recognized as the 14th best player in the NFL on the League's own NFL Top 100 Players List for 2016.
Donald was selected to a 3rd straight Pro Bowl last season in 2016 as well; after recording 8 sacks, 31 QB pressures / hits, 47 combined tackles, 5 passes batted down (yes, five of them), and 2 forced fumbles.
Clearly, if the Donald comparisons do still remain fair and relevant while assessing the trajectory of his own NFL career, then one can only believe that Rankins too will have an opportunity to become a very special player in his own right, over the course of due time.
One thing to remember as the Saints head into OTA's beginning this Tuesday morning: the recent addition of brand new defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen, whom the team hired back in February from his previous job as the defensive line coach at North Carolina State.
Much in the very same manner that new linebackers coach Mike Nolan is expected to have a huge impact on the Saints linebacker corps, Nielsen is expected to do the same for the Saints D-Line.
Nielsen, who played the defensive tackle position himself once upon a time at Southern Cal in the late 1990's and early 2000's, is a popular coach among players --- and a position coach who New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson said in his recently published article earlier this week, is an energetic, intense presence who will apparently take an active role on the practice field.
Nielsen has become well known for his "hands-on" approach to coaching and teaching players; which Erickson notes is the act of him personally and physically demonstrating technique, even if that means putting his hand "down in the dirt" to show a player how to come off the ball and execute a move.
That "hands on" approach to teaching players was something that observers say wasn't really embraced all that much previously by former 'old school' defensive line coach Bill Johnson.
With Rankins still in the process of "taking it all in" as he continues to progress through Year #2 of what hopefully is the potentially bright future of an NFL career, it's an added bonus to have the type of position coach that Nielsen is helping him through the growth process.
As the long, arduous, and unrelentingly hot summer looms ahead for the Saints and their fans during the next few months of the training process, they can take comfort in the knowledge (and the hope) that the upcoming remainder of the year could turn out to be something very special.