METAIRIE, La. -- So much for smokescreens.
More than a month ago, Sean Payton rattled off the New Orleans Saints' biggest needs during the NFL owners meetings -- starting with a pass-rusher and a 3-technique defensive tackle -- and said, “I think we can find that in this draft.”
So what did the Saints do on Thursday night? They took the best pass-rushing, 3-technique defensive tackle in the draft with the No. 12 pick, Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins.
In the process, more than half of the billion or so mock drafts out there finally got one right -- including the Saints’ own internal mocks.
“This is the first time, I’m gonna say in 10 years that I’ve been here ... where there were a few tweaks ahead of us, but this kind of went like we thought,” Payton said. “It worked out well.”
About the only thing that might count as subterfuge is that fact that the Saints were so sold on Rankins after the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine that they didn’t even bother with any more one-on-one visits.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Rankins was widely praised for being one of the most impressive players throughout the week of Senior Bowl practices back in January. The Saints routinely bring their entire contingent of coaches and scouts to Mobile, Alabama, just a couple hours down the road.
“Here’s his production consistently [on college tape]. Then here’s his production after the season, just in case you forgot,” Payton said. “Here he is really playing well and practicing well. If you watch each practice and just watch the front, he was a handful.
“He’s explosive. He definitely is a pressure player. He’s someone that wins with initial quickness. He’s got real good football instincts. And then every other box that you look for as far as two-time captain, a guy that everyone at the school speaks highly of, just keep going down the line.”
The Saints did consider other options, though.
They used up almost their entire time on the clock to see if anyone might come calling to trade up – especially after Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil surprisingly dropped.
But Payton said he doesn’t think a single team called the Saints about moving up.
Also, Payton said the Saints had to consider Tunsil himself, even though offensive tackle wasn’t a top position of need.
“He’s an extremely talented player, athletic. Then you start projecting, ‘Alright, who’s going to guard?’” Payton said. “But I think we felt really confident with Sheldon.”
The main reason that Rankins was such a no-brainer for the Saints is because he plays defense.
Specifically, he can be an asset against both the run and the pass, which will come in awfully handy for a defense that ranked last in yards per rush and last in yards per pass in 2015.
Rankins (6-foot-1, 299 pounds) had 14 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss over his final two seasons at Louisville. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden called him the best 3-technique in the draft. ESPN’s Todd McShay called him a “home-run pick.”
Payton said Rankins should play inside both in base defense and in the sub packages. He will likely rotate with newly acquired free agent Nick Fairley at 3-technique.
When asked how he expects to fit in New Orleans’ defense, Rankins said, “However they need me to.”
“I don't know any specifics on what they want me to do or anything like that,” Rankins said. “But they're gonna get a hard worker, someone who’s gonna come in and try to pick up the defense and try to gain the trust of the veterans, the guys that have been busting their butts in that locker room. And then we'll go from there.”
When asked which guys he studies or tries to take after, Rankins listed a group of guys that should suddenly make the less-heralded DT spot feel more exciting: Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins and Gerald McCoy.
But he said his “favorite guy is probably Jurrell Casey” – a 6-1, 305-pound Pro Bowler from the Tennessee Titans who has 22.5 sacks over the past three years.
“Similar body types, similar movement style, I think, and more of a natural comparison based off those things,” Rankins said. “I watch a lot of guys, even defensive ends, different guys like that. I'm always trying to take any tidbit from just all great players and try to apply it to my game.”
The only real knock on Rankins is that he is from Georgia and admittedly grew up rooting for Michael Vick and the rival Atlanta Falcons.
But Payton had some fun with that, too.
“And it’s nice that he was a former Falcons fan,” Payton said.