After an underwhelming rookie year, Martinas Rankin has become an afterthought, at least in the mind of many Texans fans, in the search of an improved offensive line in 2019. The third-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft was expected to step in and supplant one of the veterans on the roster for a starting role.
The first question Rankin must answer is whether he can fit into Houston’s offensive system. Bill O’Brien values versatility in his offensive linemen. With only a limited number of players available to suit up for a game, viable options are slim in the event of an injury. Therefore, having players on the roster who can sub in and seamlessly rotate positions improves the team’s ability to continue to succeed when someone goes down.
Rankin aligns with O’Brien’s strategy of versatile offensive linemen. The 6’4”, 315 pound lineman primarily played left tackle for Mississippi State, earning first-team All-SEC honors after facing some of the best pass rushers in college football and holding up well with a less than stellar supporting cast. His NFL Draft profile sheds some light on some of the concerns that came to light his rookie year.
As a left tackle, Rankin will struggle with edge speed and as a right tackle he may have issues as a run blocker handling the power he will face. While he offers tackle flexibility and may get an early look at right tackle, his best position might be at center where his instincts and intelligence will stand out. The further Rankin kicks inside the better he will be. He may be average as a tackle or guard, but he could become a good NFL starter if he gets his shot at center.
The current college game does not do offensive linemen justice in terms of providing them with technique to succeed in the NFL. In spread offenses with built-in RPOs that are flourishing in the college game today, the offensive line’s sole purpose is often to hold up the one legitimate pass rusher on the field and create lanes for quick hitting run or pass plays.
Taking a page from Matt’s article on Rankin after the Texans drafted him, in the above play Rankin is at left tackle facing linebacker Lorenzo Carter, who would later be drafted in the third round by the Jets. Rankin demonstrates a fluid kick-slide off the snap to create a natural pocket for the QB and a longer distance for the pass rusher to get to the QB. The technique Martin demonstrates on this play masked issues he would endure during his rookie season when he faced with bigger, stronger, and faster bull rushes. The QB holds the ball for less than two seconds on this play, so all Rankin needs to do is delay the pass rush long enough for the quick throw to be released.
Blocking for Deshaun Watson is a completely different story. DW4 loves to hold onto the ball and let the play develop before releasing the ball. Linemen have a mental clock for how long they need to hold a block before the QB will leave the pocket or throw the ball. Martin needs to develop this sense to continue to develop in the NFL.
This play features several pros and cons. Rankin (#55) is at left tackle. At the snap, Rankin is waiting for the defender to pop outside since there is no other defender holding the edge. When the lineman initially stays inside, Rankin is caught off guard and lunges to make contact. The second he does, the defender yanks Rankin and darts outside to rush the edge, but he’s thwarted when Rankin regathers his feet, drops his hips to anchor down, and extends his arms into the chest of the defender. The reason I’m calling out this one simple play is to acknowledge that Rankin does not get away with this mistake in the NFL. The likes of Von Miller or Aaron Donald feast on moves such as these.
In his first NFL start, against the Giants, Rankin flashed great pass blocking skills. Although most of the game was a wash, Rankin controlled the pass rush and gave Watson time to throw.
I wish I had better video capabilities, so please bear with me because this shows that there is a lot of potential goodness left in Rankin.
Here he starts off at left tackle in a low stance with his weight on his front foot. This will allow him to explode off the line and into his kick-slide.
Off the snap, Rankin begins to mirror the pass rusher like a basketball player to maintain inside leverage while staying balanced. The pass rusher has not made a distinct move yet, so Rankin is in good position to mimic his movements until they make contact.
Once they do so, Rankin wraps his arms around the defender to limit his ability to shed Rankin. Now that they are both committed, Rankin must gather his feet and lower his hips to stop the rush.
Boom. Arms extended. Hips low. Room for Watson to throw. You cannot ask more out of a rookie left tackle making his first career start. Rankin started here after Seantrel Henderson was injured in the season opener against the Patriots, which resulted in Julie’n Davenport moving to right tackle.
Rankin also started the next two games but struggled to maintain his blocks. His next chance to start came in Week 16 against the vaunted Eagles’ defensive line. Except for a false start here and some errant run blocking there, Rankin held down his post like a man of the Night’s Watch. (Ed note: Yes, I’m dying for Game of Thrones to return).
Rankin began implementing his hands to complement his quick feet. By not allowing pass rushers to land the first punch and disengage, Rankin used his wide frame to stay in front of his man.
A sign of an improving offensive line is when they can work in tandem with the other linemen to handle the rush. Rankin and Nick Martin can combine and conquer to provide Watson with a running lane to escape for a first down.
We have to keep in mind that Martinas Rankin was a third round draft pick. He was not built to be a plug-and-play option. An up and down first season is usually acceptable for a third rounder, but in the context of the Texans’ putrid offensive line, we needed him to be more than he was ready for.
Give chance a chance in 2019 when it comes to Rankin. A full offseason with the team should help him more than any other player on the roster. He will be in direct competition with Senio Kelemete for the starting left guard position.
Depending on who the Texans bring in this offseason and where they fit best, Rankin is in better position than most are giving him to start and contribute to the Texans’ offensive line in 2019.