METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints got a big boost on Monday, when standout defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins returned to practice for the first time since he tore his Achilles in January.

Rankins and coach Sean Payton declined to put a timetable on when he will be able to play in a game. But they expect him to miss fewer than the six weeks that would have been required if he had remained on the physically unable to perform list to start the regular season.

“There was nothing left to do from a training standpoint. Now it’s just limit him and begin to get him up-to-speed practice-e,” Payton said. “That’ll take a little bit. He’s still got some work to do.”

Rankins said he didn’t find out until Monday that he would be activated from the PUP list and return to practice.

“Man, it’s surreal. I’m not even gonna lie,” said Rankins, who did a limited amount of work Monday. “It’s very surreal, putting on cleats again to come out here, go through warm-up lines, walkthrough and things like that, seeing your teammates embrace you.”

Several teammates mimicked Rankins’ signature “shimmy” sack celebration, though he joked that he had to correct them on the proper technique.

Rankins, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft, had a breakout season in 2018, with eight sacks, 15 quarterback hits, 12 tackles for loss and a forced fumble while primarily playing the three-technique role. The 6-foot-2 305-pounder was an underrated reason that the Saints finished second in the in run defense and tied for fifth in sacks while earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a 13-3 record.

Rankins’ season ended early, however, when he tore his left Achilles tendon during New Orleans’ divisional-round playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

“You never want to leave a playoff game — period — but for me to go out the way I did last year with the season I was putting together, it definitely didn’t end the way I wanted it to,” Rankins said. “I think I’ve kept that in the back of my mind throughout this entire recovery process.

“So being able to attack each day, put myself in position to be back out here in the last week of training camp with my guys, being able to get some quality work in before the season gets started, it’s a beautiful thing. I’m proud of myself, but I’ve still got a long way to go.”

Rankins said he has leaned on several others who have come back from the same injury, including former Saints teammates Alex Okafor and Benjamin Watson. Okafor returned from a 2017 Achilles injury to play in every game last season, and Rankins said Okafor gave him his best piece of advice.

“He said, ‘When you’re ready, cut it loose,'” Rankins recalled. “Don’t think, don’t hesitate, don’t baby it. When you get that thought in your head, ‘Yeah, I can go do this,’ just cut it loose and go play, and the rest will take care of itself.”

The Saints might still be uncomfortably thin at the three-technique spot in Week 1, when they host the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. Rankins’ top backup, David Onyemata, will be serving a one-game suspension. The next man on the depth chart, newly signed veteran Mario Edwards Jr., has been sidelined since the second preseason game with an unspecified injury.

New Orleans placed third-year tight end Garrett Griffin on injured reserve Monday, after he was carted back to the locker room in Saturday’s preseason game with an unspecified injury. Griffin was battling to retain the roster spot he earned late last season, when he caught his first career touchdown pass in the NFC Championship Game.

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