After his first season in green & white, D-lineman Sheldon Rankins is confident the Jets are on the ascent.
"We've started something special," Rankins told the team's senior reporter Eric Allen. "Obviously, we didn't end the way we wanted to in terms of the record. We didn't show what we wanted to show throughout the season, but we've grown, showed promise and developed in some areas that needed to be developed. We still have some room to grow. That's the beauty of all this, that we still get a chance to work and grow toward something that we truly believe is capable of happening."
Rankins, signed by the Jets in free agency to a two-year deal after being drafted No. 12 overall by New Orleans in 2016, accomplished a personal goal that had eluded him for the majority of his NFL career -- he remained virtually injury-free during the 2021 NFL season. In his five seasons with the Saints, he had to contend with a broken leg, a torn Achilles tendon, ankle and knee injuries
"I was able to come out healthy, that's a big thing for me," Rankins said. "Obviously, I've had my injuries over the course of my career, and being able to come back this year and truly play the way I wanted to play was important. It wasn't perfect, but there were times when I felt I was my old disruptive self, causing havoc in the backfield, making plays. I'm looking forward to getting back to the truly dominant player I can be and looking forward to helping this organization win a lot of games."
Rankins missed only one game this past season (Week 13 vs. the Eagles), taking 613 snaps, which were second on the D-line to John Franklin-Myers. He made 32 tackles (15 solo), 5 TFL, had 3 sacks (for 15 yards), 7 QBH, 22 QBP, and was tied for the team lead (with rookie CB Michael Carter II) with 2 fumble recoveries.
He said he is eagerly looking forward to the 2022 season, especially the return of DE Carl Lawson, who missed the season after rupturing an Achilles tendon during a joint practice at Green Bay.
"I think we're already a super-talented room, minus Superman, even with Carl not being out there," Rankins said. "We'll get him back and the organization is looking to upgrade, add talent and continue to build on what is our strength. It is going to be exciting each and every day. This was our first year in this system and there were some growing pains. This group showed how dominant it can be. Going into next year we know the scheme and guys can really lock into the nuances that get to elevate players."
Rankins, who will turn 28 on April 2, knows the team and the defense are works in progress. That said, he's all in on the project designed by head coach Robert Saleh, and his staff.
"He's been great," Rankins said. "He's been who he is from Day 1. He's allowed the players to drive the narrative, to drive the ship. It's all you can ask for as a player, to have your input and views on things heard. From what he implemented we were able to go out there and play free and play like ourselves He doesn't hold anybody back from being themselves. To watch him work, to truly watch him cultivate something here is truly exciting."
Though the Jets' record may not reflect the strides made as the season progressed, last year's draft overseen by GM Joe Douglas has to qualify as an unabashed success. On offense, the draft yielded four starters in QB Zach Wilson, LG Alijah Vera-Tucker, WR Elijah Moore and RB Michael Carter. On defense, the cornerbacks Michael Carter II, Brandin Echols and Jason Pinnock all made significant and encouraging contributions. At linebacker, Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen dealt with injuries, but are clearly in the team's long-term plans. With draft capital (two picks in top 10, four in top 38 and nine selections overall), salary cap space and maximum flexibility, Rankins is bullish on the future.
"I think we need consistency overall," he said. "We have to find ways to win close games, but the consistency that was displayed at times is really promising, especially from our young group of guys. We had a lot of guys who haven't played a lot of football. It was encouraging to see the consistency those guys displayed coming in each and every week, continuing to grow and becoming better football players and better students of the game. And to go out there take it on the field and execute at a high level has been pretty exciting to watch. Now it's time to take this offseason, home in on things that need to be fixed. We'll do that and come back better players."
See the best images of Jets D-Line during the 2021 season.