Saints draft defensive lineman Rankins with 12th pick

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METAIRIE, La. (AP) — Seeking help for their struggling defense, the New Orleans Saints selected defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins 12th overall in Thursday night’s NFL draft.

The 6-foot-1, 299-pound Rankins starred at Louisville, where he played defensive tackle and had six sacks, as well as 13 tackles for losses last season.

The Saints hope Rankins will bolster a unit that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, and which struggled both to pressure quarterbacks and stop the run.

“They’re going to get a hard worker, someone who’s going to come in and try to pick up the defense, try to gain the trust of the veterans,” Rankins pledged by phone from his brother’s home in Covington, Georgia, shortly after he was drafted. “I’ve been built on hard work.”

During NFL meetings in March, coach Sean Payton said the Saints, who allowed 413.4 yards and a league-worst 29.8 points per game last season, were hoping to draft a play-making defensive lineman.

Rankins describes his chief strengths as his versatility and his ability to grasp schemes and diagnose plays.

“That’s one thing I’ve always hung my hat on, being able to do multiple things in the defense,” Rankins said, adding that he is open to lining up all along the defensive line. “Wherever they need me to play — no preference.”

A defensive overhaul in New Orleans began last year, when six of nine draft picks were used on defensive players. But New Orleans has a long way to go to even approach the type of defensive prowess that led Denver and Carolina to last season’s Super Bowl.

The Saints had 31 sacks as a team last season, which tied for 25th league-wide. Defensive end Cameron Jordan made a team-high 10 sacks, but opposing offenses were often able to focus on blocking him without paying a price. New Orleans also ranked 31st against the run.

During last season, Rob Ryan was fired as defensive coordinator. Dennis Allen, then a senior defensive assistant, took over for Ryan for the final weeks of last season and remains in place.

The offense was far less of a concern for New Orleans entering the NFL draft.

The Saints were their typical prolific selves despite trading away star tight end Jimmy Graham during the 2015 offseason. Quarterback Drew Brees, who missed an early-season game with a right shoulder injury and then played through a foot injury late in the season, still managed to lead the NFL in passing with 4,870 yards. He also passed for 32 touchdowns.

But in the offseason, the Saints released a couple of longtime offensive pillars, receiver Marques Colston and right guard Jahri Evans. The moves left the Saints with a lot of youth at both the receiver and guard positions. For now, New Orleans’ projected starters at guard are Tim Lelito, who is coming off his first season as a regular starter, and Senio Kelemete, who has made only spot starts in his young career. Payton has said he’s interested in bolstering his interior offensive line, something that could happen in subsequent rounds Friday and Saturday.

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