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Sheldon Rankins' versatility, conditioning could make him attractive to Detroit

Sheldon Rankins can name them all off, the guys in the NFL he wants to be like. The players he wants to model his NFL career after. There are the typical names, like J.J. Watt and Marcell Dareus.

Then there are the guys who are built more like Rankins, a smaller, yet powerful interior defensive lineman who has the ability to blow up plays and change games from the inside of the defensive line. And if there is one guy he watches the most, it’s St. Louis defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

Two years ago, Donald was a highly touted draft pick with one question -- his size. Rankins believes he’ll hear the same things.

"Guys I really model my game after, probably one guy in particular, Aaron Donald. Jerrell Casey. Geno Atkins," Rankins said. "Guys of smaller stature but they are productive. That’s the knock I get just about any time anyone talks about me is my size.

"I think seeing how those guys are able to translate what they do to the field to be successful, I feel like it can only help me to study them and take what they do."

The Detroit Lions, of course, know all about Donald. The then-Pitt defensive tackle was on the board at No. 10 in the 2014 draft when Detroit drafted tight end Eric Ebron over him, even though defensive coordinator Teryl Austin really liked Donald. The Lions were in a similar situation then as they are now, with a bunch of defensive tackles who are either in the final year of their contract or without guarantees beyond this season.

In other words, the Lions haven’t done much to solidify the position long-term since then. It’s why Rankins -- and a lot of other defensive tackles -- have caught the attention of Detroit over the past few months. And it’s why if Rankins is available at No. 16 for Detroit, he’ll probably get some heavy consideration. In their latest mock drafts, both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay had Rankins off the board close to Detroit -- at No. 12 to New Orleans.

The 6-foot-1, 299-pound Rankins had a productive career at Louisville. He had 58 tackles last season with 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. Those were similar numbers to his junior season, when he had 53 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. He’s the No. 2 defensive tackle according to Scouts Inc., and the No. 14 player overall, one spot behind Jarran Reed, who is considered the No. 1 tackle in the class by Scouts Inc.

Rankins will make an immediate difference for any team -- including the Lions -- against the run. He’s also shown enough as a pass-rusher that he can be productive there as well. That should keep him on the field for every down a team wants to use him, something critical for a first-round pick.

At the Senior Bowl, he showed his one-on-one pass-rush skills. His stature helps with his leverage against the run. He believes his conditioning will be strong enough to keep him on the field as long as a defensive coordinator would want him to be -- in any position he is needed.

In a deep defensive tackle class, it’s what he feels like could make him more valuable than others.

"I just feel like my versatility does a lot for me," Rankins said. "The fact that I've played in a 3-4, I've played in a 4-3, I've played all up and down the D-line, from zero nose to a five-technique. I feel like, when you turn on the tape, you see me doing a lot more things. You're able to see things as far as me being able to adjust to certain formations and things like that.

"You can see me as far as pre-snap movements and things like that. I think that my versatility and my intelligence really sets me apart."

It’s what could make him attractive to Detroit if he’s there when the Lions are on the clock in a little more than two weeks.