In dynasty IDP leagues that require the defensive tackle position, every team scours the ranks of incoming rookies searching for the next Aaron Donald — a beefeater capable of affording fantasy owners a marked edge at the position, of producing not only elite DT numbers but also top 20 numbers among all defensive linemen.
Well, in 2016 there just so happens to be a young defensive tackle who has drawn comparisons to the Rams’ star. All the way back in January at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, ESPN’s Matt Bowen told Steve Jones of The Courier-Journal he saw more than a little of Donald’s game in Louisville’s Shedon Rankins.
“I don’t want to say he had the same week as Aaron Donald (in 2014), but he had the type of week where you say, ‘Man, this guy can play,’” Bowen, a former NFL safety, said. “He whipped some guys down there. His one-on-one pass rushing was amazing. During team drills, he was making plays. At times he’s living in the backfield. I think he really improved his draft stock, and ultimately he made a lot of money down there.”
Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, on the other hand, compared the 6’1″, 299-pound Rankins, who tallied 58 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks for the Cardinals in 2015, to another three-technique who was wildly productive for IDP owners last season — Kawann Short of the Carolina Panthers.
“Although he has the skill set that supersedes scheme,” Brugler said, “Rankins is ideally suited as a three-technique in a four-man front, fitting a similar role as Short in Carolina. Rankins is one of the better run defenders in this draft class and continues to grow as a pass rusher.”
Rankins carried his strong performance at the Senior Bowl over to the Scouting Combine in February, where he solidified his status as a first-round pick with an impressive display of speed, athleticism and explosiveness for a man his size. As I reported for Bleacher Report at the time, he asserted that he thinks he has the skill set to become the NFL’s next dominant interior lineman.
“I feel like I’m that kind of guy, that caliber of player,” Rankins said. “That’s what I wanted to prove this year, and I feel like I did it. I just have to continue to put my best foot forward for the rest of this process and let God take care of the rest.”
It isn’t all raves and accolades with Rankins, however. By NFL standards, Rankins is undersized for an interior lineman, and at least one former teammate told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com that might come back to haunt him on draft day.
“Our area scout really likes him a lot and he’s already angling for us to consider him,” Houston Texans defensive lineman Brandon Dunn said, “but he falls outside of the physical parameters of what we want from inside guys. I see him as only a 4-3 nose for a one-gap defense and that’s the only fit.”
However, Zierlein thinks Rankins may be able to escape pigeonholing. “Everything about Rankins’ game screams winning football player,” Zierlein wrote. “He has been extremely productive as a bullrusher and edge rusher and he can hold the point of attack or play in gaps. Rankins is a ball of power with rare foot quickness, a great motor and outstanding feel for his position. With so many teams playing in subpackages now, I would expect both 4-3 and 3-4 teams to consider him for an interior spot despite his shorter stature.”
Frankly, pigeonholing Rankins isn’t necessarily a bad thing — depending on which hole we’re talking about. The general consensus appears to be that Rankins’ future lies in a four-man front. If it’s as a three-technique (like Donald, Short and just about every other IDP-relevant tackle) then the big man will be a no-brainer pick as the top rookie at the position and on the short list to potentially be the first rookie lineman taken overall in IDP leagues.
If his NFL future lies as a nose tackle, as Dunn believes? Well, not so much.