In 2014, one defensive lineman stole the show at the senior bowl and again at the combine, rocketing up draft boards and cementing himself as a sure-fire first round pick. That player was Aaron Donald, who has turned into one of the best defensive players the league has to offer.
While I don't mean to imply any correlation between Donald's ability and Louisville's Sheldon Rankins' ability, their pre-draft trajectory seems to be on the same course. At the end of the 2015 draft, Mel Kiper released his "way too early" big board for the 2016 draft. Of course, with an entire season yet to be played the process is far from perfect — regardless, Rankins was nowhere to be found in Kiper's top 37 players.
Now, however, after 14 sacks in his final two seasons at Louisville and a dominant week at the Senior Bowl (even though an injury prevented him from actually playing in the game), Rankins is firmly in play for the Raiders at No. 14.
I'll be honest: defensive line is far from the top of my draft wish list. With Khalil Mack, Dan Williams, Justin Ellis and Bruce Irvin along the starting front and a number of decent depth pieces, this unit is in fine shape heading into the 2016-17 season. It's not perfect, but it's the best of the three units Oakland has on defense.
Despite all that, I somehow still love the idea of drafting Rankins.
While undersized, Rankins would be a beast on the interior for Oakland, freeing up Irvin and Mack to wreak havoc in the backfield — something that is critical if Oakland is unable to improve their linebackers and defensive backs greatly between now and opening weekend. While I would prefer Oakland drafting a linebacker or defensive back in this spot, I'm not sure one will be there that makes sense this early, and if that's the case, Rankins at 14 sounds good to me.
The Raiders currently have an embarrassment of riches at edge rusher- Mack, Irvin, Aldon Smith, Mario Edwards. That's all well and good, but what happens when a quarterback feels the pressure and steps up in the pocket?
That's when you need a big guy in the middle to be able to beat guards and centers in pass protection. The quarterback must be given zero options other than to throw the ball into the teeth of the secondary well before he is ready. You need a guy who is not only big enough to eat blocks, but quick enough to beat them with athleticism and technique.
Sheldon Rankins is that kind of player. He's been a defensive stalwart at Louisville playing nose tackle in their 3-4 defense and lining up outside in a multiple set. He has the size and quickness to do it all, and he can absolutely take over a game like Nick Fairley used to do at Auburn.
Rankins' only real knock is his size. He's listed at 6'1" and 300 pounds. Many scouts don't see him as a versatile player who can lock down the middle of an NFL 3-4, but rather as only fit for being a tackle in a 4-3 in a one gap system. However, I seem to recall Aaron Donald being too small, and Geno Atkins slipping to the fourth round for similar reasons. Both of those guys are Pro Bowlers. I don't put a lot of stock in a super productive guy being too small. The only thing that concerns me is "too lazy" and Rankins has a great motor.
The question for me isn't whether or not Rankins is worth the 14th pick, because he is. The question is if the Raiders actually need him. The Raiders' current defensive tackles are Dan Williams, Justin Ellis and Stacy McGee. Unless Ellis suddenly lives up to his massive potential and stops getting hurt, I don't see anyone there who is the total package at DT. Rankins would be tjat guy. He would turn what is already a good defensive front into possibly an elite one.
While I think trading down and still picking Rankins is a possibility, I'm sure Rankins will receive strong consideration from the Bears and Saints who draft shortly before Oakland, as well as the Falcons and Redskins who come shortly afterward. I'm sold on Rankins as a good option for the first round. The issue I have is that there could be as many as eight defensive tackles taken in the first round, so where is the value? The value's in trading down and taking the one that is left, whether that's Rankins or A'Shawn Robinson or Jarran Reed or Vernon Butler or Kenny Clark or Robert Nkemdiche or Jonathan Bullard.
It's for that reason alone that I say this. If Reggie feels Rankins is The Guy, he should take him if he even lasts that long, but I would
With the resigning of Aldon Smith, the Raiders will pair him up with Khalil Mack, Bruce Irvin, and Mario Edwards Jr. to give the Silver and Black one of the most potent pass rushes in the NFL. At defensive tackle, Dan Williams is coming off a great 2015 season and Justin Ellis has shown the ability to succeed as a nose tackle. So why then would the Raiders even consider Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins?
The answer is depth. After two productive drafts and two free agency periods in which the Raiders were able to address a lot of needs, the only major holes left are a free safety and a middle linebacker to pair with Malcom Smith. Free safety can be addressed in the second or third round as well as middle linebacker. This puts Reggie McKenzie ins an awesome position to be able to take the best available player.
NFL teams are always looking for more defensive lineman as having lots of the depth on the defensive line allows teams to rotate their players and keep the lineman with fresh legs. While Dan Williams is an all-around defensive tackle and Justin Ellis is a run stuffing nose tackle, Rankins fits the Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins role as a pass rushing defensive tackle. The same criticism draft evaluators had of Aaron Donald is the same one they have for Rankins, he is undersized (6'1", 299 lbs). His small frame is likely the only reason he could fall to the Raiders at 14 overall.
But what Rankins lacks in size, he makes up for in quickness and explosiveness. It is rare for an interior defensive lineman to be as productive a pass rusher as Rankins is and his addition would reap benefits for the Raiders defense. Not only would it allow the team to rotate defensive lineman more, but it would give the Silver and Black another pass rusher to rush the quarterback from the interior.
It is getting more and more difficult to find glaring needs for the Raiders, but one position in which they don't currently have an ideal fit is 3-tech defensive tackle. If you consider DeForest Buckner more as a 3-4 defensive end (and you should), Rankins is considered by most to be the top 3-tech defensive tackle in this draft.
His shortcomings are literally that -- he's just 6-1, 300 pounds. His size and raw pass rush abilities (14.0 sacks the past two seasons) could be why he's being compared to Aaron Donald. If he were able to live up to that lofty comparison, he would solidify the Raiders defensive line and add the ability to play at just about every position in any set along the line.