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John DeShazier: Sheldon Rankins wants to be dominant force on defense

2016 first-round pick missed seven games because of broken leg

Go inside the action on Day 3 of 2017 Saints Minicamp presented by Verizon

Sheldon Rankins felt robbed, and for good reason.

Just as he appeared to be laying the groundwork for an outstanding rookie season, having worked his way into the starting lineup at defensive tackle after just a few months with the franchise, the New Orleans Saints' first-round draft pick in 2016 broke his leg in training camp.

Just like that, his season snapped in half; Rankins played in nine of 16 games.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about that sometimes, what would have been," he said. "But all I can control is what it was. So I'm just going into this year looking forward to playing a full 16, and being a dominant force for this defense."

There were signs last year, in his abbreviated showing, that Rankins could be just that kind of player for a defense that needs more front-seven play-makers.

Rankins had four sacks (tied for third most) and a forced fumble, and his 26 tackles were seventh most among defensive linemen, but each lineman ahead of him on the list played in at least 15 games.

"I think it's difficult in training camp, when you have something that's going to take you out half the season," Coach Sean Payton said. "It's always a challenge.

"(But) he's someone that picks things up quickly. Fortunately, he's healthy now. He's doing well, he's really been good through the offseason program and obviously, he's going to be important to what we do."

Said Rankins: "I feel miles and miles ahead of where I was at this point last year. Not only familiarity with the playbook, but familiarity with the guys, familiarity with the heat. So, a lot of things go into that.

"And physically, I just feel a lot better. My leg is good, I rehabbed it great. I feel a lot stronger, a lot faster, a lot quicker. So, I'm looking forward to being an impact player on this defense."

Frankly, he might have to be, and not only because that's an expectation of the No. 12 overall pick last year.

The Saints possibly will be without defensive tackle Nick Fairley this season. Fairley, who was second on the team with 6.5 sacks and second among defensive linemen with 50 tackles, has a heart condition that has sidelined him this offseason.

He was diagnosed with an enlarged heart at the NFL Combine in 2011, and a physical this offseason – administered during the time that the unrestricted free agent signed a four-year deal to remain a Saint – revealed that his condition had worsened. Fairley has received two medical evaluations, one of which advised him to give up football, and is awaiting a third opinion.

Without him, the remaining defensive tackles hope to band together and cover the absence.

"I think guys are confident in what they're able to do," Rankins said. "We've shown that thus far through OTAs, and we're going to continue to do so. If and when we have Nick back, we'll be happy to have him back but we're going to continue to work and push forward without him."

That push will be led by Rankins.

Last year, he felt robbed. This year, he's hoping to regain what he felt was taken away.

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