The Chicago Bears received decent production from the outside linebacker position last season. Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston combined for 20.5 sacks, and that was with each of them dealing with or recovering from leg injuries for half the year. With all three healthy, the Bears should again be able to pressure the pocket off the edge next season.
Yet interior pass rush was lacking last season and little has been done to address the problem. The club signed Akiem Hicks in free agency but the 6-4, 324-pounder is more of a space-eating 5-technique who has just 9.5 career sacks in four NFL seasons.
The team also re-signed Mitch Unrein, yet he has just one career sack.
Going into the 2016 NFL Draft, finding a pass-rushing defensive tackle will be a priority for the Bears.
With that in mind, I broke down game film of Louisville DT/DE Sheldon Rankins to determine if he's an option for the Bears with the 11th overall pick in the draft.
Sheldon Rankins, Louisville (6-1, 299) Senior, Age: 21
A two-year starter at Louisville, Rankins was named third-team All-ACC as a junior (13.5 tackles for loss, 8 sacks, 2 INTs) and second-team All-ACC his senior year (13 tackles for loss, 6 sacks).
40-yard dash: 5.83
Bench press: 28 reps
Vertical jump: 34.5
Broad jump: 9-10
3-cone drill: 7.44
20-yard shuttle: 4.59
-Versatile defender. Played 3-4 NT, 3-4 DE, 4-3 DE and 4-3 DT.
-Extremely athletic with light, quick feet.
-Consistent arm extension. Initial hand punch can put blockers on their heels. Thick legs allow him to continue driving blockers into the backfield, particularly when he gains leverage.
-Shows very good upper body power.
-Powerful base allows him to coil into double teams and hold his ground.
-Good hand strength. Can stack and shed. Will use spin move to fight off blocks.
-Good agility. Tracks ball carriers well.
-Has the physical characteristics of a 5-tech, yet the explosiveness of a 3-tech.
-When he lifts his butt and pins his ears back, he's extremely disruptive in the face of the quarterback.
-Sits with his butt down in more than 50 percent of his snaps. Doesn't allow him to fire off the ball.
-Unless it's a pure passing situation and his only job is to get after the QB, he doesn't consistently explode at the snap. More of a read-and-react defender.
-Quick hands but he doesn't use them effectively. Needs to learn how to better swat away block attempts.
-Not a speed rusher. Cannot bend and turn the corner from the defensive end spot.
-Doesn't offer much in pursuit.
-Often gives up outside contain trying to cheat on plays inside.
-Needs a more consistent pass-rush arsenal. Relies too much on a straight bull rush.
Is Rankins worth the 11th overall pick in the draft?
Rankins is an impressive player. He was able to seamlessly rotate from every position on Louisville's defensive line, jumping from 5-technique to 3-technique from play to play.
He has a lot of strength in his arms and chest. That, combined with his lower body size and power, gave him the ability in college to effectively eat up single blocks, while also hold his ground against double teams. His field vision and ability to shed blocks, using strong hands, allowed him to make a lot of plays for the Cardinals.
When it comes time to get after the quarterback, that's when Rankins really shines. When he flattens his back and fires low off the ball, his power and burst allow him to shoot gaps and create havoc in opposing backfields. He has all the physical traits to be a very effective 3-technique pass rusher in the NFL.
Rankins was a beast at the Senior Bowl, particularly during the 1-on-1 pass-rush drills, where he was dominant against the nation's best seniors. That's telling, as Aaron Donald - a player to whom Rankins compares favorably - was similarly dominant during Senior Bowl practices.
The issue for Rankins is that, while he was a good 5-tech in college, that may not translate to the pros. He's only 6-1, 299, which is small for a 3-4 defensive end. Teams put a lot of stock into size, particularly height, at the 5-technique position, and Rankins doesn't fit the mold.
His size doesn't preclude him from two-gapping at the next level but it's definitely cause for concern.
So there's a good chance Rankins won't be nearly as effective as a 5-technique in Chicago's 3-4 base front as he was in Louisville's defense.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the Bears used sub packages with equal frequency last season. In nickel situations, Rankins would be a valuable weapon for the Bears. If he can push the pocket up the middle, with McPhee, Young and Houston crashing in from the sides, life will be miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
Yet if Rankins' value only comes on passing downs, does that make him worth the 11th overall pick?
At a certain point in the draft, a player's specialty-heavy skill set can be overlooked. There are only a handful of defensive linemen in every draft who transcend scheme. Players are so specialized these days, teams are forced to compromise on defensive lineman the vast majority of the time. But should the Bears compromise with a pick that is just one selection out of the Top 10?
While Rankins has Pro Bowl potential, I'm not so sure he provides adequate value for the Bears.
Now that's assuming there's a consensus in terms of his potential as a 5-technique, which there obviously is not. If a team believes this undersized player can eat up 650 pounds of an NFL double team, then he's Top 10 worthy, without a doubt.
But if you see what I see, which is a player who has the potential to crumble under that NFL-level beef, then the Bears might be better off finding a three-down defender to select in the first round.
That said, if Chicago pick Rankins in the 1st round, third-down passing situation for the Bears defense next season are going to be fun to watch.