2016 Senior Bowl Scouting Notebook: Is Sheldon Rankins the Next Aaron Donald?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 28, 2016

Louisville defensive end Sheldon Rankins (98) runs through drills during NCAA college football practice for the Senior Bowl, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Fairhope Municipal Stadium, in Fairhope, Ala.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Sheldon Rankins looked like a video game glitch in his first two Senior Bowl practices.

Rankins (6'1 ", 304 lbs, Louisville) put such quick moves on offensive linemen in one-one-one drills Tuesday that they tumbled to the wet grass in one direction while he blew past them in the other. In full-squad and nine-on-nine running-game drills, Rankins routinely knifed through gaps in the offensive line and sometimes got under his blocker’s pads and shoved him into the backfield. 

Wednesday’s frigid practices brought more of the same. Rankins demonstrated a nasty spin move and heavy hands when he clubbed blockers aside during one-on-one drills. Michigan center Graham Glasgow (6'6 ", 306 lbs), who had success against other defenders, was a frequent Rankins victim, getting beaten so bad at one point that he never left his three-point stance as Rankins blasted past him.

Like any good Senior Bowl participant (these young men invariably know how to project humble confidence), Rankins delivered a somewhat critical self-evaluation after his first practice: “It was good. But obviously you want to improve every day. It wasn’t perfect, but I did some good things as well as some things we can correct on film.”

Nov 21, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers quarterback Nathan Peterman (4) runs with the ball as Louisville Cardinals defensive end Sheldon Rankins (98) defends during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA T
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a trail of defeated offensive linemen in your wake, Sheldon. What are you trying to correct? “Hand placement. Footwork. Just continuing with getting after the ball, continued effort and energy.”

Judging from Wednesday’s results, Rankins did indeed make some corrections.

Rankins entered the Senior Bowl as a prospect with little to prove. He recorded 18 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss in his Louisville career, but sack and stuff totals don’t do justice to his impact. Rankins consistently used initial quickness, agility and pass-rush technique (“rip” moves and such) to beat blockers and spill quarterbacks from the pocket.

Senior Bowl practices are a great opportunity to solidify draft stock. Aaron Donald came to Mobile, Alabama, two years ago as a highly decorated interior lineman who was just slightly shorter than the NFL first-round prototype. He left as a breakout star destined to become the 13th player taken in the draft, a Defensive Rookie of the Year and an eventual Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

When asked, Rankins listed Donald as one of his NFL influences. “Geno Atkins, Aaron Donald and Jurrell Casey. All of those guys are similar in stature to me. All of those guys do a lot of great things. They are in different schemes, but they are all productive.”

It may be jumping the gun to compare Rankins to Donald. But when an interior lineman takes the field against all-star competition and looks like he is playing at a different speed, it’s a good idea to chisel him into your first-round projections.

Other Big Guys

Jan 26, 2016; Mobile, AL, USA; North squad running back Tyler Ervin of San Jose State (7) is stopped by defensive end Lawrence Thomas of Michigan State (98) during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Spo
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Wednesday’s schedule featured full-pad practices in blustery, icy conditions. It was a great day to watch the big guys grind on one another in line drills.

Michigan State’s Lawrence Thomas (6'3 ", 281 lbs) possesses an impressive size-athleticism package and made a pair of flash plays in 11-on-11 drills. He beat both a left tackle and a running back on one outside rush, getting his hands in Carson Wentz’s (North Dakota State) face and forcing an errant throw. Later, he set the edge properly during a reverse to Braxton Miller (Ohio State) and was quick enough to force Miller to cut back to the inside. Thomas has good quickness off the line and made some plays in the backfield Tuesday as well. He’s not crafty about getting to the quarterback, but he has some moves.

Harvard left tackle Cole Toner (6'5 ", 305 lbs) has passed the “he belongs” test, holding his own against most of the North’s edge-rushers. Toner is smooth in his backpedal and shows good balance, an ability to adjust to pass-rush moves and a willingness to finish blocks.

Center Jack Allen (6'1 ½", 297 lbs, Michigan State) stood out during North practices by smothering two good defensive tackles to the ground during one-on-one drills. Allen mauled Adolphus Washington of Ohio State and Matt Ioannidis of Temple, both of whom have looked impressive in other drills. Allen handles quickness well and can engulf a defender when he gets control of him.

Jarran Reed (6'3 ⅛,", 313 lbs, Alabama) is one of those guys you don’t mention because it’s assumed that a 300-pound tackle from Alabama is going to be good. And he is good: quick for a man his size, capable of hand-fighting to beat his blocker and tenacious in both one-on-one and team drills.

D.J. Reader (6'3", 340 lbs, Clemson) does not look fat for a man his size and moves well. He displayed a little quickness and a powerful bull rush in one-on-one drills, with the ability to get his hands under the blocker’s pads and steer him. I saw Day 3 draft grades for Reader entering Senior Bowl week. He’s almost certainly moving up.

Straight Down the Middle

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Duke kicker Ross Martin put on a show between practices, drilling field goals as long as 65 yards with a little help from a 10-15 mph piercing wind at his back. Several of Martin’s kicks pinged off a light pole standing dead center about 10 yards behind the uprights.

“I’m aiming for that,” Martin said after practice. “I’m picking that spot out. Obviously if I hit that, it’s right down the middle of the uprights. Aim small, miss small.”

Martin was also 7-of-7 on field goals, including a 60-yarder during a practice heavy on special teams drills. He booted a few kickoffs through the back of the end zone.

Martin finished his career ninth on the all-time NCAA field-goals list. Duke’s kicker since the start of his freshman year, he went 78-of-93 (83.9 percent) for his career. He was 8-of-10 from beyond 50 yards.

Martin said he is working on increasing his strength to boost his range and has been practicing NFL-length extra points. He began attending kicking camps in high school after moving from running back (and soccer player) to kicker and stresses the importance of “repeatable motion,” a phrase sure to get special teams coaches excited. “Having that consistent repeatable motion, I think that’s a feather in my cap,” he said.

The Senior Bowl is rarely a showcase for kicking talent, but Martin’s warm-ups and field goals were among the highlights of the South’s practice on Wednesday, and he has stood out as much as any defensive lineman or wide receiver.

“I think I’ve shown that I’m an elite field-goal kicker,” Martin said.

Wednesday Wrap-up

Tight end Darion Griswold of Arkansas State joined the South squad as an injury replacement Wednesday and had several catches in assorted drills. He looked good for a guy who just showed up late in the morning and was handed a blank helmet. Griswold had a fine week of Shrine Game practices last week; he’s a good example of the type of player who benefits from the all-star process.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

Reggie Ragland (6'1 ¼", 259 lbs, Alabama) vs. DeAndre Washington (5'7 ", 199 lbs, Texas Tech) looks like a mismatch on paper when it comes to pass-protection drills. But Washington held his own. Ragland ripped past him on one rep, but Washington responded by getting in front of Ragland, getting low—well, lower, because Washington is always pretty low—and standing the linebacker straight up in his tracks. Washington has shown the quickness and pass-catching ability you would expect from a smaller back, but he has mixed it with some real grit.

Flash play of the day: Safety Kevin Byard (5'11 ", 216 lbs, Middle Tennessee State) reacted to an underthrown Jacoby Brissett (North Carolina State) pass to a wide-open Jay Lee (Baylor) and made a leaping interception. Brissett had a rough practice overall, with several poorly thrown balls.

The South practice was sluggish and languid. Gus Bradley and his Jacksonville Jaguars staff conducted long special teams and installation drills, and players looked a little iced when full-squad drills finally began. Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen scrambled several times during passing drills, which is never a good sign for the offensive rhythm.

North practice was crisper. Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys did not like what he saw or heard during stretches and ordered the players to do their jumping jacks again. Instead of going through the motions and muttering their count, the squad jumped in unison and barked "one, two, three" like an elite Navy Seals battalion. It was a funny moment, and it also seemed to have an impact on team energy levels.

K.J. Dillon of West Virginia (6'0 ½", 208 lbs, safety) wins this year’s Crazy Hollering Guy award. Dillon is the most vocal player on either squad, constantly stoking teammates and responding to big plays with whoops, hugs and body-bumps. He’s one good shriek away from breaking Dee Ford’s record for loudest player in Senior Bowl history.


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