METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Seeking immediate help for a defense that has languished near the bottom of the NFL for the past two seasons, the New Orleans Saints selected former Louisville defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins 12th overall in Thursday night's NFL draft.
Saints coach Sean Payton said Rankins' combination of quickness, strength and versatility make him a player the Saints could use on any down — not to mention a constant threat to disrupt opposing quarterbacks with pressure up the middle.
"I'm fired up about our selection," Payton said. "It's an area that we feel like we can help our defense significantly."
Payton then grinned as he alluded to Rankins' Georgia roots by saying: "It's nice that he's a former Falcons fan."
The rivalry with Atlanta aside, the Saints hope Rankins will bolster a defense that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, and which struggled both to pressure quarterbacks and stop the run.
The 6-foot-1, 299-pound Rankins played defensive tackle at Louisville. He had six sacks, as well as 13 tackles for losses last season. He also returned a touchdown 46 yards for a touchdown.
"They're going to get a hard worker, someone who's going to come in and try to pick up the defense, try to gain the trust of the veterans," Rankins pledged by phone from his brother's home in Covington, Georgia, shortly after he was drafted. "I've been built on hard work."
During NFL meetings in March, coach Sean Payton said the Saints, who allowed 413.4 yards and a league-worst 29.8 points per game last season, were hoping to draft a play-making defensive lineman.
Rankins describes his chief strengths as his versatility and his ability to grasp schemes and diagnose plays.
"That's one thing I've always hung my hat on, being able to do multiple things in the defense," Rankins said, adding that he is open to lining up all along the defensive line. "Wherever they need me to play — no preference."
There were other highly rated defensive lineman still available — such as Clemson's Shaq Lawson and Mississippi's Robert Nkemdiche — when the Saints chose Rankins. But Payton said Rankins has a particular combination of attributes the Saints valued.
"He's explosive. He definitely is a pressure player. We feel like he can affect the pass rush. He's someone that wins with initial quickness," Payton said. "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 off. Just keep going down the line."
A defensive overhaul in New Orleans began last year, when six of nine draft picks were used on defensive players. But New Orleans has a long way to go to even approach the type of defensive prowess that led Denver and Carolina to last season's Super Bowl.
The Saints had 31 sacks as a team last season, which tied for 25th league-wide. Defensive end Cameron Jordan made a team-high 10 sacks, but opposing offenses were often able to focus on blocking him without paying a price. New Orleans also ranked 31st against the run.
During last season, Rob Ryan was fired as defensive coordinator. Dennis Allen, then a senior defensive assistant, took over for Ryan for the final weeks of last season and remains in place.
The offense was far less of a concern for New Orleans entering the NFL draft.
The Saints were their typical prolific selves despite trading away star tight end Jimmy Graham during the 2015 offseason. Quarterback Drew Brees, who missed an early-season game with a right shoulder injury and then played through a foot injury late in the season, still managed to lead the NFL in passing with 4,870 yards. He also passed for 32 touchdowns.
But in the offseason, the Saints released a couple of longtime offensive pillars, receiver Marques Colston and right guard Jahri Evans. The moves left the Saints with a lot of youth at both the receiver and guard positions. For now, New Orleans' projected starters at guard are Tim Lelito, who is coming off his first season as a regular starter, and Senio Kelemete, who has made only spot starts in his young career. Payton has said he's interested in bolstering his interior offensive line, something that could happen in subsequent rounds Friday and Saturday.