Sheldon Rankins has chance to be more effective than Nick Fairley

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 13: Trevor Siemian
NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 13: Trevor Siemian /

As news of Nick Fairley’s heart condition broke, the tentatively high hopes for the New Orleans Saints defensive line fell apart at the seams. But Sheldon Rankins has the potential to put the pieces back together.

The New Orleans Saints offseason took a major hit when news broke that Nick Fairley would miss the season. But, as is the case with the injury to Terron Armstead, the Saints are well-stocked to handle the loss.

Sheldon Rankins has the potential to be a better player — even in 2017 — than Nick Fairley. Yes, Fairley was a force against the pass last year. But he was a very hot/cold player, as Sean Payton admitted. At times he was a major force, especially against the pass. At others, he failed to win his one-on-one battles. I don’t mean this as a bash on Fairley as a player. It will take some serious development from Sheldon Rankins to match what Fairley brought to the defense. But he has the potential to be a more complete player, a more difficult matchup to gameplan against.

In an unfortunate echo of Junior Galette, Fairley had a tendency to sell out against the pass. At times he would abandon his gap responsibility and force the rest of the defense to patch up behind him.  Look over his 2016 tape and you’ll see much of what you saw in Galette: consistent flashes of awesome pass rush talent, but an upsetting tendency to run themselves out of the action. Fairley was no Cam Jordan, who does his job first and gets after the quarterback second.

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Against the run, Fairley left too much on the field. A damning trait for a defensive tackle. He was a willing run defender, sure. He put his head down and fought, and that’s why we all loved him. Galette never cared about the big picture. He was a sack chaser. With Fairley, I see a much more forgivable but no less damaging problem: too often he went for the homerun play. If he saw a glimmer of light, he jumped. Canny linemen used that to move him out of his gap.

Rankins, on the other hand, has all the traits that you want in a defensive tackle. He’s sound in his technique and reads and reacts with greater consistency than Fairley ever did. The tempting comparison is Aaron Donald, and with good reason. Both players are cerebral, undersized but technique-dominant tackles. Rankins doesn’t have the girth to allow him to take plays off or to coast on size. He needs to attack and conduct the trench battle on his terms. He doesn’t yet do that as well as he can, and his development very much hinges on him developing that ability. But if Rankins can provide even a fraction of what Donald provides, he has the potential to be a much bigger asset than was Nick Fairley.

The main drawback is that Rankins is not yet the pass rusher that Fairley emerged as last year. But remember, we only saw half a season of an injury-hindered Rankins. There’s every reason to hope that he can become the disrupting force against the pass that Fairley was. Everyone in the organization, from the coaches, scouts and players, agrees that Rankins has the right makeup. He just needs to put it all together.

DL lineup options

There’s no denying that a lineup of Jordan – Rankins – Fairley – Okafor (or other) was an intriguing prospect. But the Saints could be much worse off than the combination of Rankins, Tyeler Davis and David Onyemata on the inside. Darryl Tapp and Tony McDaniel are veteran options on the bench. And if more than one DE emerges from the possibly deep group in training camp, then that allows Dennis Allen to slide Cam Jordan inside.

The Saints have options on the DL. And with Fairley, they had a problem with how to split snaps between he and Rankins. Now that problem is gone, and if there’s a silver lining in all this is that it may allow Rankins to develop into his full potential faster than he would have if he’d had to split time as a rotational player.