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New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins shimmying back into his old form

Returning from Achilles surgery, says, 'I feel like each day I take a step'

It's not the exact same block or street, but Sheldon Rankins recognizes the neighborhood.

Where he is, is rehab, and now practice, after an Achilles injury – not from the complete tear of his left one, like in January 2019, but from preventive surgery that likely helped avoid a complete tear to the right one, in December 2019.

So training camp this year for the New Orleans Saints defensive tackle has him in the familiar position of pursuing the benchmarks he hasn't already surpassed.

"It starts from the medical side of just making sure it's healed properly, in the correct positions, everything's where it needs to be," Rankins said Saturday, Aug. 22. "And then from that standpoint, it's about strengthening.

"My teammates will tell you, I lift heavy. So for me, I just need to be able to lift heavy. If I can go in there and, I think during this rehab I got up to deadlifting 700 pounds for multiple reps – when I can start doing those types of things again, that's when I know, from a strength perspective, we're getting there.

"And then from a movement perspective, I'm an upfield, twitchy kind of guy. I'm not 320 (pounds), I'm not going to sit there on the line of scrimmage and take on double teams and not move. I want to get up the field, I want to be twitchy. I want to get around corners, get around edges, spin moves.

"Once I can start working into some of that, feeling like my get-off is strong – feeling like I can get off with Cam (Jordan), I can get off with Marcus (Davenport), Trey (Hendrickson), those guys – feeling like I can hang with those guys in get-offs and working moves, that's when I started to feel like, 'OK, we're kind of rounding into form.'

"And the last test is always, you've just got to push on somebody. Somebody's got to try to block you and you've got to be able to absorb it, find the ball and go make a play. Each day has been getting better, I feel like each day I take a step and we're going to continue that trajectory."

Rankins is pushing on and pushing through.

Jordan, the Saints' All-Pro defensive end, said he sees his teammate improving daily. Coach Sean Payton said, "He's someone that spent a ton of time in his rehab. He's always been a real smart, instinctive player and the key is just getting his body back to football shape and his conditioning level and his strength. And I think we've seen that. And that's continuing to come."

With Rankins, it's easy to envision because he has been in the neighborhood before.

The left Achilles rupture occurred in the Saints' Divisional Playoff Game against Philadelphia in January 2019, and ended Rankins' best NFL season. He started all 16 regular-season games and posted eight sacks – his signature "Shimmy" celebration after each – with 12 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a pass defensed.

He recovered well enough that New Orleans opened the '19 regular season with Rankins on the 53-man roster, figuring he'd return soon enough that placing him on the Physically Unable to Perform list – a designation that would've guaranteed he would miss at least the first eight games – would be too much.

In the fourth game of the regular season, Rankins made his '19 debut. But in his 10th game of the season, during a 48-46 loss to San Francisco in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, he pretty much had taken all he could. His right Achilles wasn't going to hold up.

"I just went to put my foot in the ground and kind of felt something shoot up from that spot all the way up through my leg," he said. "And my initial thought was, 'I tore my Achilles.' But I went to put my foot in the ground again, I was like, 'OK, it's not torn." I was like, 'But, I can't keep doing this.' I went and saw the trainers, told them how much pain I was in and in the coming weeks, we decided it was just better off to go ahead and get it fixed and get back and be ready to roll for the season.

"The medical term for it is, I had a Haglund's deformity. It's like an extra bone growing off the heel, and it was essentially, slowly but surely pushing my Achilles off the insertion point. It wasn't a matter of if I was going to tear it, it was going to be a matter of when. That's just kind of how severe mine had gotten.

"So it really just became of point of do I fix it now and start the rehab, or do I try to play on it, try to salvage what was left of the season and potentially tear it and have to go through the whole Achilles repair rehab again. That's pretty much what it was. It was just pretty much a matter of time when I was going to need to fix it.

"I knew I'd had it since probably in college – like, I'd always felt kind of something back there. But it wasn't to the point where it was going to slow me down or prohibit me from doing what I needed to do. It really just got to that point, where it was no longer (where) we could get to the game and I was going to be able to flourish. It was at the point where any time I would push off or do anything explosive, it literally felt like it was going to tear. So it was just at the point in time where I needed to get it fixed so I can get back to playing the style of ball I know I can play.

"Any athlete will tell you, if you're going out there and you don't feel like you can do the things that you know you can do, that puts you in a dark place. I just wanted to be able to get back to my happy place, essentially, being able to be disruptive and play great football."

He's getting there, and the Saints know the kind of player they'll have when he arrives.

"I think he's a real good leverage player," Payton said. "He gives you good pass rush, from an inside tackle position. I think he's got good hips and movement skills. He's smart. So when he's playing at full speed, he gives you an added rush threat from an inside position and I think we've seen that and we've benefited from that. I think of two years ago, when he was really having one of his best seasons. So I think that's something that he excels at."

That and, apparently, the recovery process.

"I won't say it's not tough," Rankins said. "It is. Just speaking personally, when the first injury happened, I was pretty much starting to come into where I felt like I was hitting my stride in this league and becoming the player I always wanted to be. For that injury to kind of knock me down and then kind of have another one follow it up rather quickly, it has been tough.

"But at the end of the day, great training staff here, great teammates, great support system at home – I've been able to not only do this myself, but I've been able to lean on others throughout the entire process. And they've continued to instill in me that eventually I'll be the player who I want to be – who I was before, even better. I've just got to continue to trust the process, continue to work and all will take care of itself."

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