Adding talented defensive linemen is never a bad idea. A lot of teams (including the Falcons) incorporate heavy rotations on along the defensive line. With players being substituted frequently, the talent pool needs to be deep. Spending quality resources on defensive linemen can almost always be justified.
Sheldon Rankins from Louisville is arguably the most talented defensive tackle in this year's NFL Draft. He's an athletic freak that passed through Justis Mosqueda's Force Player filter, which has some success predicting the success of interior defensive linemen even thought it's an edge player formula.
Here's a look at Rankins' performance at the combine, thanks to Mockdraftable.com.
Rankins' athleticism is apparent the second he steps on the field. Here's a touchdown he scored against Boston College early in the 2015 season. He's been one of the best interior pass rushers over the past two seasons of his career posting 14 sacks in that timespan. His burst off the snap of the ball and upper body explosion allow him to routinely disrupt offensive linemen on the interior.
Rankins is a very polished pass rusher for a player who has yet to reach the NFL. Rankins sets up centers and guards like an edge rusher playing offensive tackles. Pass rushing is a nuanced skill; interior defensive linemen who can scare offensive linemen in a multitude of ways and not just mundane bullrushes are precious commodities.
Sheldon Rankins is great in the "minigame" of pass rushing. Here's an example from his game versus Florida State. Rankins was using power moves on the interior early in the game and getting solid depth down the pocket. Once the interior of the offensive line was expecting power from Rankins, he seized advantage of sloppy technique by the center.
Notice how the center is leaned over in his stance after he snaps the ball. This is a common overcorrection by offensive linemen in pass protection when they get beat with bullrushes a few times. They want to become more aggressive, but often lose the technicality that makes them difficult to get around.
This clip demonstrates Rankins' quickness on the interior as he hits the center with a quick swim and explodes into the backfield. He likely would've had a sack on Everrett Golson if Dalvin Cook didn't trip him at the last second. This play also shows an interesting trait from Rankins: his second step is better than his first step.
Having a better second step than first is a bit of a weird skill to have, but it's added a level of nuance to Rankins' game. He's very effective when executing slants and stunts as he creates great position with his first step and then explodes through gaps on his second step.
He doesn't make the sack here, but he sets himself up very well to attack the center and drive him back a few yards before shedding and jumping on the pile.
Intelligence and play recognition is an underrated note of evaluation in defensive line play. Read and react drills are run to death in practice; when it translates to the actual game it shows off understanding of offensive line interactions and offensive tendencies. Rankins sniffs out the screen play beautifully here.
Rankins also defends the run well. Louisville played him all across the defensive line, from nose tackle to 6 technique and he showed an ability to stop the run at every position. Understands gap integrity and the replacement of gaps on the fly. Here's an example from the Cardinals season opener against Auburn.
He's lined up as a five technique over the right tackle in this situation. His responsibility is to control the C gap, which is alignment sets him up to do perfectly. However, Auburn's offense throws in a little wrinkle that forces Rankins to play disciplined and under control.
The right tackle folds inside leaving him in a one on one situation against the fullback. Ideally Rankins would get inside of the fullback with the defender to his left playing outside contain. When he missed the opportunity to put himself in the gap, he did the next best thing and used the fullback's body to close the gap leaving the quarterback with little room to run.
The pulling guard had nowhere to go and got behind the fullback that Rankins was controlling.
Since Rankins was occassionally asked to play nose tackle in Todd Grantham's scheme, he needed to develop an ability to control two gaps at once, which he did. A key trait for two gappers to have is the coordination and awareness to "attach" their left arm to their left leg and right arm to right leg, like a puppet.
Here's an example of Rankins successfully two gapping against Houston. Notice the synchronization between his upper body and lower body before he sheds the center for a tackle. He mirrors the center patiently without getting too aggressive upfield and sheds with ease.
Attention to detail is a huge selling point for Sheldon Rankins. He's a very detail-oriented defensive lineman who's seen success at every technique along the defensive line.
Is he perfect? Absolutely not. Rankins can get overwhelmed by double teams and sometimes becomes bored on pass rushes when his initial move doesn't work. He's also inconsistent with finishing after early penetration (see 2015 game versus Florida State), but his penetrating skills are so good you can live with a missed opportunity here or there.
Moving forward, his best bet for success is to stay at three technique and live off his explosive ability as a one gap penetrator. The Falcons defensive line already has solid talent and depth, but adding a player the caliber of Sheldon Rankins could give Atlanta one of the deepest defensive line rotations in the league.
Grady Jarrett, Ra'Shede Hageman, Derrick Shelby, Jonathan Babineaux, and Sheldon Rankins? Sign me up. Based on pre-draft buzz, it feels like the Falcons will have to pull the trigger on Rankins at the 17th pick in the draft.
He's worth it.