METAIRIE, La. — The mere opportunity to drill a tackling dummy with the full force of his 6-foot-2, 305-pound frame represented an invigorating change of pace for New Orleans Saints first-round draft choice Sheldon Rankins.
The defensive tackle hopes he’ll be menacing offensive linemen in games that count in just a couple more weeks.
Rankins practiced on Wednesday for the first time since fracturing his fibula in his left leg during training camp. He emerged from practice eager to talk about how good he felt.
“I definitely was kind of anxious to go through that,” Rankins said. “Little things like tackling drills and hitting sleds and football movements was fun for me today, just to see how my body would react to it, how my leg would react to it. It was good.”
Drafted 12th overall out of Louisville in last spring’s NFL draft, Rankins was a projected starter. Coaches have raved about not only Rankins’ ability to stuff the run, but also to make quarterbacks uncomfortable on pass plays by destabilizing the front of the pocket.
After getting hurt in August, he started the regular season on injured reserve, but coach Sean Payton said Rankins would be the one player this season that the team is permitted to designate for return in midseason. Under NFL rules for players with such a designation, they may start practicing in Week 7 but may not play until Week 9. This season, that means Rankins will return at the earliest when New Orleans travels to San Francisco on Nov. 6.
“Barring any setbacks, I think we’re on schedule for that timeframe,” Rankins said.
Rankins did not appear limited physically in the portion of practice open to reporters. In one drill, he accelerated to his left while keeping his hips low and then drove his shoulder through a large, soft, wheel-shaped tackling target that coaches were rolling across the field. Rankins leveled the target, crashing down upon it. He then sprang to his feet and trotted back to the players in his position group to prepare for the next drill.
Still, Rankins said he sees the logic in NFL rules allowing him to practice a couple weeks before he is eligible to play, figuring he’ll need a couple weeks to get his timing, technique and conditioning as refined as it should be for live action.
“Timing is everything,” Rankins said. “And conditioning — being able to run to the ball, play hard, things like that. I think those are the real things these few weeks are going to allow me to do and be a big help.”
New Orleans, which ranked second-to-last in the NFL defensively the past two seasons, made bolstering its defense a priority this offseason, and Rankins was a central piece of that.
In his last two seasons at Louisville, Rankins registered 14 sacks and 26 ½ tackles for losses.
“He was showing so much potential on the interior rush. We were looking forward to having him,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said. “When you have a rookie who is not trying to find himself, that’s something that you automatically find special. He came in being a good push in the interior. … He could get off blocks, great with his hands, great with his feet. He just knew who he was.”
But Rankins’ absence has been one of several to regulars on the Saints’ defense, which continues to rank 31st, allowing with 419.4 yards allowed per game. New Orleans also is allowing a league-worst 33.6 points per game.
Thanks to the elite production of quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints’ passing game, New Orleans has managed to win two straight after a 0-3 start, but Brees predicted Rankins’ return would be “tremendous” for the team.
“Rankins will not only add depth, obviously, but he’s an explosive player,” Brees said. “We got to see three weeks of him with pads on and he was impressive.”
NOTES: Saints top cornerback Delvin Breaux, who also has a broken fibula and has not played since Week 1, stretched with the team before practice but did not participate in drills. … Other players missing practice on Tuesday included OT Andrus Peat (hamstring), LB Dannell Ellerbe (quadriceps), CB Sterling Moore (abdomen), DE Paul Kruger (back) and DT Nick Fairley (non-injury related).