Explosive DT Sheldon Rankins Looks Like Next Aaron Donald at NFL Combine

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Explosive DT Sheldon Rankins Looks Like Next Aaron Donald at NFL Combine
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

The NFL Scouting Combine shifted its focus to the defensive side of the ball Sunday. While the first half of the weekend was all about the quarterback position, the second was about the youngsters whose job it is to make those passers miserable.

Heading into the day, the central topic of discussion was Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Joey Bosa and his chances of going No. 1 overall. Or Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith, whose draft stock is plummeting amid foreboding medical reports.

However, by the time workouts had ended, the topic had shifted—to an eye-opening performance by Louisville Cardinals defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.

Mind you, it isn't as if Rankins was a relative unknown entering Indianapolis. Far from it. The 6'1" 304-pounder has been turning heads since last month's Senior Bowl, where Bleacher Report NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller listed Rankins as a defender whose stock was on the rise:

Before leaving practices with what was announced as a knee injury, Rankins was showing off impressive, versatile skills. He's big enough (6'1", 303 lbs) to play as a 3-technique defensive tackle and dominate with leverage and pad height to match his impressive first step. Don't rule out Rankins' playing 3-technique in a 3-4 scheme either. He's stout enough to handle that.

ESPN.com's Matt Bowen concurred, telling Steve Jones of the Courier-Journal that Rankins' performance in Mobile, Alabama, drew comparisons to the 2015 NFL Defensive Player of the Year runner-up:

I don’t want to say he had the same week as Aaron Donald, but he had the type of week where you said, ‘Man, this guy can play.’ 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.

For his part, Rankins told reporters at the combine, per Jones, that he was just trying to carry the momentum from Alabama over to Indiana.

"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."

Well, mission accomplished.

First, as Miller pointed out, Rankins clocked in at 5.03 seconds in his 40-yard dash. That might not seem like a blazing time, but when you factor in just how much weight Rankins was carrying, it becomes a lot more impressive:

Even that wasn't as impressive as the blistering 4.68 Donald laid down in Lucas Oil Stadium at the 2014 combine.

No, really. Donald ran a 4.68 40-yard dash, albeit at nearly 15 pounds lighter than Rankins.

Rankins' 34.5-inch vertical tied him for the fourth highest leap at his position. His 118-inch broad jump and 28 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press Saturday were both well above average. Simply put, there wasn't a drill in Indy in which Rankins didn't perform well.

And as Miller once again chimed in, that carried over into the position drills Sunday afternoon:

Rankins looked explosive, both "at the snap" and while changing direction. Speed. Power. Quickness. For Rankins on Sunday, it was yes, yes and yes:

Boxes were checked. Eyes were opened. And it's a fair bet more than one scout for an NFL team added "watch more tape on Rankins" to his to-do-list.

Pop it in and you see a player who does share some similarities with Donald. Admittedly, Rankins doesn't have quite the otherworldly burst at the snap Donald does, but he's hardly stuck in quicksand and is a bit bigger.

Rankins has shown the ability to collapse the pocket from both the interior and the edge, and while some draftniks have pigeonholed him as a 4-3 3-technique, that may be a welcome curse to have. Given, you know, the fact that the NFL's highest-paid defender (Ndamukong Suh) is one.

Big-time defensive tackles make big-time money, and Rankins made himself a few bucks over the weekend.

Before things even got underway at the combine, ESPN's Mel Kiper believed Rankins, who tallied 58 tackles (13 for loss) and six sacks for the Cardinals a year ago, wouldn't make it out of the top 15 in April. Kiper's pre-combine mock had the big man headed south to the New Orleans Saints at pick No. 12:

The Saints are in the midst of a rebuild on the defensive side of the ball, and Rankins can be unblockable when he's at his best, with exceptional quickness and the ability to make plays in the backfield from the interior. A stellar week at the Senior Bowl secured his place in the top half of Round 1.

Meanwhile, Lance Zierlein of NFL.com wrote that even though Rankins is a bit undersized—just as Donald is—he could see both 3-4 and 4-3 teams looking past his lack of size because he definitely doesn't lack the ability to be a disruptive force on the defensive line:

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. Thanks to Rankins' ability to disrupt, I think he has a great shot at getting starter's snaps early on, but don't be shocked to see him fall a little in the draft due to his smaller stature.

Given how Rankins fared in Indianapolis, combined with his showing in Mobile, that draft-day dip is looking less and less likely. Quite the opposite, in fact.

All this isn't to say that Rankins is a shoo-in to be the next Donald, any more than Donald was a shoo-in to be the next Warren Sapp. There's a lot more football (actual football) to be played before either of those statements is more than wishful speculation.

But it's also hard not to see the similarities. The relative lack of size. A shot-from-a-cannon first step that appears to more than make up for it.

If the point of draft season is to, at the very least, allay doubts about perceived shortcomings and solidify a player's status and, at best, bolster it, then it's hard to see Rankins as anything but one of the combine's biggest winners.

Because Rankins accomplished both in a huge way Sunday.

Gary Davenport is an NFL analyst at Bleacher Report, a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association and the Pro Football Writers of America. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.

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