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Sheldon Rankins ready to be a leader for Saints' D

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METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins is aware of his recent mentions at NFL.com.

Lance Zierlein named the 12th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft as a breakout player for 2018 , while Gregg Rosenthal mentioned Rankins as a key homegrown player for the Saints.

"I obviously take the compliment; thank you," Rankins said with a smile Thursday following the team's organized team activity. "Every time I approach this game, every time I touch the field, I'm looking to make plays and be a big part of this defensive success. I'm glad people are taking notice, but it's still on me to go out there and prove those guys right."

Entering his third season, the defensive tackle looks to build on what he has accomplished since entering the league out of Louisville.

During his rookie season, Rankins spent the first eight weeks of the regular season on injured reserve while recovering from a fractured fibula suffered in training camp. Rankins returned in Week 9 and made an immediate impact. He appeared in nine games and totaled 20 tackles (15) solo, four sacks and a forced fumble on 336 defensive snaps.

In 2017, he displayed versatility by playing inside and outside in the Saints' 4-3 base defense, while starting all 16 games. Rankins finished the season with 26 total tackles (16 solo), two sacks, an interception, a pass defensed and a forced fumble on 812 snaps.

While there might have been some concern from outside observers surrounding a dip of production when compared to his rookie season, Rankins has a simple message to doubters.

"Get some film and watch it," Rankins said emphatically. "I think what I do speaks for itself. I think I'm versatile. I can rush the passer, I can stop the run, I can do whatever the defense needs me to do. I'll always carry that with me in and out of every season, and my mindset won't change."

With the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Rankins in the middle, the Saints have a player capable of commanding blockers, a scenario that frees up the edge rushers, such as defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Rankins can also affect the quarterback outside of a sack, as he finished tied for second with defensive end Alex Okafor on the Saints defense with nine quarterback hits in 2017.

The defensive tackle's stature and power to disrupt blocking schemes can cause opponents headaches, as Houston Texans guard Senio Kelemete pointed out in a text message.

"With Sheldon, he's short and stocky, so he has built-in leverage," said Kelemete, who was with the Saints from 2013 to 2017. "So, it's hard to try and get underneath him and drive-block him sometimes. He has good quickness and can change it up with a power bullrush. He has a change-up to get you to over set and spin back inside, and he disguises that very well. He looks like he's going to work your edge, then boom! He hits a spin on you."

Saints left tackle Terron Armstead echoed Kelemete on the difficulties of blocking Rankins.

"It's tough seeing him on the other side of you," Armstead said in a text message. "You know about his explosiveness and quickness. I've had the advantage of watching him work every day. Sheldon has been a guy who works on his craft daily. He's only improved since he's got here. I expect a huge year from him."

Given his knack for causing havoc outside of what shows up on a stat sheet, there is plenty of like about Rankins in 2018.

The Saints selected defensive end Marcus Davenport in the first round (14th overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft. And with Davenport, Jordan and Okafor creating pressure from the outside, Rankins should see more action from his natural position inside, a move he fully embraces.

"Now, it's all about improving, whether it's just finishing plays," Rankins said. "I had a lot of pressures, a lot of quarterback hits, but now it's time to turn those into sacks. A lot of tackles around the line of scrimmage, but now it's time to turn those into TFLs [tackles for loss]. It's time to be a leader for this defense."

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