Martinas Rankin was never supposed to be an offensive tackle — even if he was drafted in the third round to be just that. Though he did play tackle (and every position) at a high level against SEC competition at Mississipi State, draft pundits had their doubts.
Bleacher Reports staff scout Matt Miller summed up his flaws well, saying, “He’ll struggle to compete against speed around the corner and may be asked to move inside to guard as a result.”
It turns out Miller was right. The 6’4″, 310-pound lineman earned his first career start at guard against the Philadelphia Eagles during week 16. He started in place of oft-injured guard Senio Kelemete.
Facing the Eagles as an interior lineman is a daunting task, as one would have to meet block three great pass rushers.
- Fletcher Cox; hall-of-fame level defensive tackle. 4-time pro-bowler, 3-time second-team all-pro, 2016 first-team all-pro, 44.5 career sacks
- Brandon Graham; 2016 second-team all-pro, 42.5 career sacks
- Michael Bennett; 3-time pro-bowler, 63 career sacks
Short to say, he had his hands full against an elite pass-rushing trio. However, he did an excellent job, as none of the aforementioned players were able to sack quarterback, Deshaun Watson. That could be primarily attributed to Rankin’s exceptional play. Although, he did allow one sack to Treyvon Hester on what seemed to be a slipped foot.
Rankin showed an ability to stand firm in pass protection against the leagues best from the get-go.
Watch how Rankin meets Fletcher Cox (No. 91) with an initial loaded punch. He then keeps a square (yet limited) stance to forbid leverage from Cox. Unfortunately, left tackle Julien Davenport and tight end Ryan Griffin allow Brandon Graham (No. 55) to force himself inside, in turn leaving Rankin responsible for guarding both. Despite the lack of help, Rankin keeps Cox at bay for 3.12 seconds.
Later in the game, Rankin does an impressive job containing Cox, as he does so for 3.06 seconds.
Notice that Rankin places his hands on Cox before he can, which creates favorable leverage. It’s also critical to watch that Rankin doesn’t fall for any of Cox’s quick motions. Instead, the rookie shadows his pass-rushers’ hips, staying in front of Cox step for step. The ability to shadow a pass-rushers’ movement is a testament to quick-thinking, excellent vision, and quick feet. But, he doesn’t just win with intellect, as he has the power, and proper stance to deny a last-effort bull-rush by Cox.
Rankin didn’t just limit Fletcher Cox all-game. He also did well against defensive ends Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham.
This next clip is an example of a duo block, meaning both Rankin and center Nick Martin are focused on limiting Brandon Graham with a double-team. Rankin is the key to the protection, as he has to force Graham inside; not an easy task against one of the NFL’s best.
Watch how he forces Graham inside by placing his hands first on Graham, in turn enabling Rankin to angle Graham’s body towards Martin’s. This is useful as Rankin has the necessary strength and length to modify Brandon Graham’s path.
Despite containing both Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, no play was more special than Rankin’s diagnoses of a Michael Bennett blitz.
The play design is essentially a stunt to fool Rankin. Linebacker Nigel Bradham (No. 53) is supposed to blitz towards Rankin, while Fletcher Cox takes on a double team to the right. The double team and Bradham’s blitz then allow for Bennett (No. 77) to come around the line and attack directly towards a distracted Martinas Rankin. At least that’s how the play is supposed to work.
Rankin sees what is happening, so he shifts inside to let D’Onta Foreman chip the linebacker blitz, then he moves his eyes towards Michael Bennett. The rest is history after focusing on Bennett, as Rankin uses his powerful two-hand punch, and anchoring ability to keep the pass-rusher at bay.
Martinas Rankin is the furthest thing from a world-beating guard. He had two false start penalties in the Eagles game alone, while the Texans ground attack stagnated in his lone start at left guard. But he was a rookie playing at against a loud and hungry Philadelphia crowd; he also lacked a starting level running back to block for. Despite that, his pros far outweighed the cons in his first career start at guard, which held true throughout the season. While I provided just four clips, it’s clear that Rankin has the body, brain, and power to be a mainstay for the Texans offensive line.