Sheldon Rankins shedding 'Chris Paul' label as he piles up sacks

METAIRIE, La. -- Sheldon Rankins is ruining his reputation as the "Chris Paul" of the New Orleans Saints' defense.

The third-year defensive tackle -- who was drafted with the 12th overall pick in 2016 -- has four sacks over the past four games and six this season.

Last year, when Rankins had only two sacks in 16 games, his teammates lovingly praised/teased him as their version of Paul because he was making "assist after assist after assist" by helping to steer quarterbacks into their paths.

"I'm still Chris Paul," Rankins said. "But at times James Harden's sitting on the bench and I gotta go get 40 sometimes."

His performance has flown a bit under the radar this season compared to the ridiculous things that the Saints' offense is doing (including his 2016 draft classmate, Michael Thomas).

But the athletic big man is a big reason why New Orleans is 9-1 heading into Thursday night's home date against the rival Atlanta Falcons, whom Rankins grew up rooting for in nearby Covington, Georgia.

Rankins is tied for the team lead with six sacks and 10 quarterback hits, and he is tied for second with eight tackles for loss. He is also a big part of why the Saints rank second in the NFL in allowing just 77.9 rushing yards per game.

Defensive end Cameron Jordan, who was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time last season with a career-high 13 sacks, has been the biggest beneficiary of all those assists from Rankins. And Jordan has always been quick to praise Rankins for everything he does that doesn't show up on the stat sheet.

Not only does Rankins create pressure up the middle, but Jordan said Rankins is also the brains of the defensive line operation -- often calling out third-down rushes, etc., based on what he is seeing.

When Jordan was asked if Rankins is no longer Chris Paul, he said, "I need him to just be him. He's been elite in my mind."

Rankins said the sacks are making people pay more attention to him, but also acknowledged he has improved this season and is playing the best football of his career on a consistent basis.

Coach Sean Payton agreed.

"I think he's playing better; I think he's playing at a higher level," Payton said. "I think he's had a little bit better rush plan, and you're seeing that. You're seeing penetration, push, and you're seeing a guy that has taken an incremental step as a 3-technique.

"And, man, it's exciting to watch."

Rankins said some things haven't changed -- like "never wavering from my own confidence ... in my God-given ability" and "never wavering from the way I prepare." The 6-foot-2, 305-pounder said he has always been relentless in his film study and both his physical and mental preparation.

And ever since he arrived as a first-round draft pick out of Louisville, where he had 15 sacks over his final two seasons, Rankins has talked about wanting to "dominate" and be a "big-time player who makes game-changing plays."

Where Rankins has changed the most this year, though, is that he said he has gone back to relying on his power more than just his athleticism.

"For me, I'm like an athlete first. So being able to beat a guy on the edge or spin or with quickness is something I'm always working on, I'm always trying to perfect. But at times over the last couple years, I've gotten so caught up in that, I haven't used as much power as I needed to do," Rankins said. "I think it's something I used a good bit in college. But I think I worked so much on working edges the last couple years, trying to beat guys around the corner, trying to win that way ... that I abandoned at times the fact that I was strong, I was powerful.

"And being able to kind of incorporate that back into my rush has pretty much opened the door for me ... to kind of set up those speed rushes, those finesse rushes."

The other important development that has come along with all of Rankins' highlight plays is the advancement of his signature "shimmy" celebration move.

It's just a quick shake of the shoulders that's kind of subtle while still being kind of awesome. The perfect symbol for Rankins' game itself.