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The Film Room: Martinas Rankin

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Matt Weston watched the film on the Texans’ newest offensive tackle, Martinas Rankin.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Arkansas Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive tackle position has made NFL teams psychotic. Snacking on hair, fingers wrapped in the metallic sheath of duct tape to thwart chewing, scribbling the same sentence in repetition, scribbling the same sentence in repetition...a combination of need and scarcity has shifted the demand curve up and the supply curve to the left. Teams need tackles to protect their most precious commodity from the outside terrors gasping until the snap of the ball unleashes a pestilent variety of rips, swims, spins, long arms, and bullrushes. The problem is teams can’t find talented players to play offensive tackle.

Gas up, pick up some Pork Rinds, add hot water to the French press, and then take a drive through the internet over at Spotrac.com. Look at the tackle market and the highest average contract per season. Nate Solder, a mediocre left tackle who can’t run block, will be paid $15 million per season after signing for a monstrous amount to go to New York. Russell Okung averages $13.25 million per year and has rarely been above average his entire career. Cordy Glenn is fine, and fine pays $12 million a year. Eric Fisher is one of the most overrated players in the league; he has hung on thanks to draft pedigree and a quick passing offense, yet he was rewarded with a $12 million a year extension. Anthony Castonzo is as average as it gets, and he makes more than $10 million a year. I mean, Matt Khalil is making $11.1 million a year.

It’s absurd, the amount of money teams are paying for mediocre production. But without competent tackle play, teams either have to dramatically scheme to overcome it by chipping and having running backs shift over to that edge—both outcomes that limit passing options—or use screens and quick passes to get the ball out before the rush can get there. Depending on the personnel, these plays can result in a lot of ineffective scampering. Even then, in late game comeback situations, teams without competent tackle play leave their quarterback shredded and hobbling away from slasher film pass rushers.

To make up for it, teams are paying mediocre players way too much money, and they are overreaching in the NFL Draft. Mike McGlinchey went ninth overall last month. He’s fine player, a fringe first round talent who leapt into the top ten because of the position he plays. Kolton Miller was selected fifteenth overall and has no idea how to use his hands, one of the most vital components of trench play and a skill that may derail his ability to play tackle from either spot. Brian O’Neil was selected in the second round and spent his college career completely unconcerned with run blocking. Brandon Parker, an interesting player, was the first pick of the third round because of need. Geron Christian is a third round pick who isn’t strong enough to even play yet. Need has made teams talk themselves into reaching for tackles, and these one-way conversations have led to them selecting players earlier than their talent level warrants.

Entering the offseason, Texans needed an entirely new offensive line for the 2018 season. They finished last in pressure rate in 2017. A Duane Brown holdout made Kendall Lamm a Week One starter. Breno Giacomini started every game at right tackle. Injuries forced Jeff Allen to start at left tackle. With the cap space they had, the Texans were in a ripe position to overpay, and with the multiple midround picks they had, they could trade up and overreach.

Instead of overpaying for mediocrity to fill the hole in their heart, the Texans made smart and rational decisions to improve their offensive line. They lost the Nate Solder sweepstakes. They signed the second best guard available in Zach Fulton and a fringe starter in Senio Kelemete, both guys who can play each guard position and be the bread in a Nick Martin veggie burger. Additionally, the Texans took a flyer on Seantrel Henderson, someone who hasn’t started in three years and wasn’t even good when he did play, but at least has some size and is on a low-risk contract.

In the 2018 NFL Draft, without their first and second round pick, Houston didn’t trade up and overreach because of need. Instead they waited until their second third round pick to add another offensive lineman. By doing so, they ended up with Martinas Rankin, one of the best tackles in this year’s draft class.

The joy of watching Rankin play stems mostly from the fact that unlike the rest of the tackle prospects, he can both run block and pass block. A novel concept. College coaches aren’t paid to develop players to make millions of dollars as a professional. They are paid to win football games. In a sport with thousands of children that lack top athleticism playing the game, the best way to go about it is is to stretch the field wide, get the ball to the best athletes in space, and create 3 v. 2 run situations. In the professional game, the field is smaller. The defenses are too fast. The coaches adjust too quickly. Talent derails scheme.

This has led to college offensive linemen making the same simple blocks over and over again. They keep their hand off the ground and pass set for a quick three seconds. Interior blockers run strong inside double teams. Tackles either hold the edge against a player who lacks the quickness to come backside to make the play or go straight up to the linebacker. Technique and the skills needed to play in the NFL are lost as college offensive lines are relied upon to do just enough until the ball gets outside.

When they get to the pros, offensive linemen require great coaching to fill in the gaps. Some do itl others don’t. It’s rarer now for offensive linemen to come straight out of college and start in the NFL. Rankin is different. He’s a strong run blocker who also has the feet to win the foot race to the point of attack.

It starts with his hands. When Rankin gets hold of a defender, he doesn’t let go. Even after life seeps out of the eyes, he isn’t satiated. He continues to choke and strangle until the whistle is blown. This is an outside zone play away from him. He reaches the outside linebacker head up, punches, extends, and drives the defender four yards up the field. Along the way, he stays square and pumps his feet in a short, choppy manner.

This short yardage outside zone play going away from him depicts his hands well. His feet are quick. Rankin devours the defensive end. The trouble is his head placement. He puts it on the outside shoulder, not the inside shoulder. Despite this mistake, he’s still able to drive the defender inside. It’s because of his hands. He strangles and drives, taking the defender slightly inside, leaving him unable to make a play on the ball.

On this play, the defender beats Rankin off the snap. He comes directly into Rankin and extends him. The offensive tackle is able to fight back, though. Once the defender shifts inside to find the ball, Rankin punches back, extends with one stretchy arm, retakes the block, and takes the defender past the imaginary yellow line.

The hand placement and strangling is vital to stay on the block. Without it, offensive linemen fall over, lurch without sound contact, and allow defenders to make plays they shouldn’t have ever made. Hand placement doesn’t mean much if the blocker doesn’t have power behind the punch, though. There’s a certain level of strength required to play football at each level. Without it, no matter how great the technique and pad level, now matter how big the heart, the lineman will be bulldozed. Rankin not only has the hands, but he has power and strength, a rare combination for players at this stage of their life cycle.

Here Mississippi State is running a lead play for its quarterback. Rankin is sliding over to swallow up the defensive end all on his own. His helmet is a rutting elk. His hands hit the chest. His arms extend and shove the defensive end off of him. From there, he finishes the block and takes the defensive end to the ground.

Here Rankin wallops the defensive end with an enormous punch, re-acclimates, and drives him off the ball while the quarterback scampers away to the other side of the field.

Rankin’s strength and hands accomplish multiple things. They keep Rankin on the block, create first level vertical movement, and prevent defenders from making cheap plays. This also makes him a good one-on-one blocker. This is something Houston’s tackles must be able to do in a Deshaun Watson offense. A run offense that utilizes 1x1x3 personnel and as many zone read plays as the Texans do leaves the offensive tackles blocking a lot of defensive ends and outside linebackers on their own. It requires the tackle to seal the end on the backside, drive him on weakside runs, or scamper up and take care of the inside or outside linebacker.

Rankin can make second level blocks. He isn’t the swiftest moving leviathan in the sea, but he moves naturally in an unnatural manner. Unless your summer sausage went rancid on a backpacking trip, short, quick, choppy steps in a squatting position isn’t a normal way to move. The Texans’ newest offensive tackle is able to stay low and square. He moves well in this strange manner.

Here the Bulldogs are running a quick option. The edge defender flashes down, forcing the quarterback to keep. Rankin takes a slide step and heads directly to the safety masquerading as a linebacker. He climbs quickly to him, meets him head on, and gets his hands inside. The play ends before he’s able to fully finish it.

He’s also a scheme neutral player in the run game. My best guess is that Houston moves to more of an outside zone run scheme and utilizes Watson as a runner occasionally as a change of pace that stems from the play action passing game. Whatever they run, Rankin should be able to handle it. He can make one-on-one blocks. He can climb to the second level. He can get hip-to-hip on strong inside zone double teams. He also has the feet to run the outside zone.

This is a strong outside zone ‘deuce’ between him and the left guard. Rankin pops the outside half of the defensive end and peels off once the linebacker gets even with the defensive end’s heels. When he pops off, Rankin bashes the smaller player. His strength overwhelms and sends the opponent to the ground.

On outside zone plays, Rankin has the feet to make the first two steps reach the defensive lineman. Aside from the occasional head misplacement, he is able hit his spot and turn the defender out. It’s all about the first two steps, and Rankin can make them.

It’s funny because Rankin also has the ability to cut down defenders, something unexpected for a player his size. If his feet or head fails him, he can lurch and slice defenders in half, cutting them off from the play. This block is crucial for an outside zone scheme. It creates a seam between the backside and playside, opening up cutback lanes.

If the future the present is extrapolated upon never happens and the Texans remain the same old inside running power team—you know, the one that turned Lamar Miller into Alfred Blue—Rankin can mash too. He’s a good puller. He knows to pull tight around the down block. Most importantly, contact is an explosion, not a dud.

The one thing Rankin will need to work on is gaining ground with his first step. At the snap. he likes to twirl off his left foot to run parallel with the line of scrimmage. It’s a wasted step. He doesn’t gain ground. Against quicker players, the freakiest freaks on the planets, this useless movement will lead to him making blocks earlier than he wants to, allowing defenders to collapse the play and shrink space. It worked in college because Rankin was quick off the snap and what he did at the point of contact; at the next level, things have to be perfect. Rankin is big, strong, and quick, but he is never going to be elite in terms of pure athleticism.

He does understand some of the important little aspects of the position. On this pull, he cuts the defender on the edge. He doesn’t just cut him down, though. Rankin can’t let the defender get wide. When he makes his cut, he aims for the outside leg. If the defender is going to make him miss, it will either need to be because of superhuman athleticism or inside movement that removes him from the play anyways. He sweeps the outside leg. The back is a pretty horse running wild and free. Ahhhhh, feel that breeze!

Rankin is also a natural kick slider. His body moves well in this way. The snake doesn’t need to be taught how to slither. The hamster doesn’t need to learn how the wheel works. Rankin doesn’t need to be taught how to kick-slide. Third round pick outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter speed rushes in a passing situation right into Rankin’s clutches.

As long as Rankin meets the defender at the point of attack, he’ll be a successful pass blocker. His hands are too good, and he extends too well not to be. His kick-slide is deceptive. He doesn’t leap out of his stance like a swimmer off the block or chew up space with rapid strides. Instead he’s consistent, casual, and methodical, all while maintaining control.

Quicker edge rushers can give him fits at times because he isn’t a lightning strike. However, he’s good enough, and if he gets his hands on the defender, the block is over. Against stronger, slower defenders, Rankin has more success. There he can slide over and wait for them. From there, he punches, sits, and stands his ground until the ball is out. The timing of his punch against this rush is impeccable.

One of the benefits of having hands like Rankin has, with the size that he has, is that even when he gets caught off guard and an aggressive defender is able to make contact first and drive him, Rankin isn’t obliterated into the star dust we are all made from. He can anchor, sit, and then use his hands to take the power back. Here he specifically chops the defensive end’s hands off him and replaces his underneath and onto the chest. This cements what looked to be a disruptive rush.

This is another example. The defender is able to stop and shove Rankin inside. This creates a pass rush lane. Rankin is able to quickly run back over and recover in front of the defender. When he recuperates, he also lands a mean punch into the rusher, quickly stomping out an ember before it becomes a forest fire.

The big concern with Rankin is that he doesn’t dominate players. He does everything pretty well. But the OMG destruction isn’t there. Rarely does he drive someone five yards and plop the last sod of dirt onto the Earth. One pop doesn’t knock a rusher on his back. The unthinkable isn’t here. Rankin doesn’t exist outside of reality. He does things you’ve seen before, and he does them in a consistent manner.

When the speed of the game drops down into another gear and blasts off, pretty good athleticism can lead to some struggles. Rankin was more than athletic enough to be great in college, but there are an entirely different set of circumstances in the NFL.

Other than that, Rankin is spectacular. He was an absolute steal for a desperate team without its first two premium picks. He’s one of the rare draft picks who can run and pass block. He understands technique. He’s a natural offensive lineman, showing nuances that most draft picks have to be taught in summertime skirmishes. Whenever September arrives, I’m confident Rankin will be the Texans’ starting right tackle. In this tackle-starved landscape, with the troubles Houston faced entering this offseason, that’s a revelation.