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Ziggy Ansah is the Lions’ only pass-rushing hope

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Ansah must shake off an injury-marred 2016 to prove himself as the league’s next big-money pass rusher.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Ziggy Ansah was a gamble when the Detroit Lions made him the fifth-overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft. While he’d lit the NFL Combine on fire with tremendous displays of athleticism, the young defensive end had only three years of organized football under his belt. It was clear he was going to be a project in the pros.

But Ansah’s prodigious football gifts allowed him to contribute in a big way even as he continued to learn the game. He made 12 starts at defensive end his rookie season, and while he made his share of mistakes, he also took advantage of a wrecking crew defensive line that punished blockers from the inside out with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle. That left Ansah free to spin and speed rush his way past single-blocker assignments and lead the team in sacks in 2013.

A solid sophomore campaign was just the prelude to his breakout, as 2015 saw Ansah grow into his most destructive form: a twitchy 6’6 pass rusher who could turn the corner and chase down quarterbacks or blast his way inside to collapse the pocket from the gap. His 14.5 sacks ranked third in the league, and with Suh and Fairley gone, he looked every bit capable of continuing his team’s elite play up front.

In 2016, injuries sapped him of his game-changing explosiveness, and that all went away. Ansah had a quiet start to his fourth season, recording just one tackle before a high ankle sprain forced him out of the Lions’ Week 2 loss to the Titans. Though he’d return to the field four weeks later, it was clear he wasn’t the same player. Without the ability to plant and cut on his right leg — his primary pass-rushing weapon — the athleticism that made him a top-five pick despite being a gridiron neophyte was gone.

Ansah acknowledged the injury had lingered well after returning to the field.

"I think I’m going to deal with it all year," Ansah told the Detroit Free Press. "But I don’t think about it. I don’t give any excuses for how I play. It gets better every week."

It wasn’t until Week 15 — coincidentally after he suffered a shoulder injury that took him out of a Week 14 game against the Bears — that he finally got to the quarterback. His absence was noticeable. As a team, Detroit finished the season with 26 sacks, tied for second-worst in the league.

Ansah will once again be asked to provide a pocket-crashing presence for a team devoid of pass rushers, but he won’t just have his team relying on him in 2017. With his contract set to expire at the end of the season, he stands on the precipice of a major payday. Here’s how the last seven players to record at least 13 sacks while on their rookie deals got paid for their services:

Young pass rushers making $ on their second contracts

Player Max Sacks Contract Type Total Money Guaranteed
Player Max Sacks Contract Type Total Money Guaranteed
J.J. Watt 20.5 Extension $100m $51.9m
Khalil Mack 15 n/a n/a n/a
Justin Houston 22 Contract $101m $52.5m
Von Miller 18.5 Contract $114.5m $70m
Ryan Kerrigan 13.5 Extension $57.5m $23.8m
Robert Quinn 19 Contract $57m $41.2m
Greg Hardy 15 Franchise Tag $13.1m $13.1m

While the contract year phenomenon — the suggestion that players perform better the season before heading to free agency as to best raise their value — is overblown, Ansah will certainly be feeling the pressure on multiple fronts. Another double-digit sack season will earn the young veteran $50 million-plus in guarantees next offseason. Another year marred by injury and ineffectiveness would limit him to a short-term, prove-it deal for significantly less money.

Ansah’s 2017 can be mutually beneficial for both the Lions and the player. With the dynamic defensive end nursing an injury, only one player on the Detroit roster had five sacks or more. A limited secondary — the Lions allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 107.2 passer rating in 2016, by far the worst in the league and a mark higher than Aaron Rodgers’ — has made a few notable improvements but will need newcomers Teez Tabor and D.J. Hayden to make a major impact this fall. It’s more likely that unit struggles again, placing the crux of the club’s pass defense on a pass rush that can make quarterbacks uncomfortable and unable to find targets downfield.

A healthy Ansah is paramount to that plan. Detroit found a way to the postseason even with its biggest defensive game-changer playing hurt for 85 percent of the season, though the Lions limped in and crashed out in depressing fashion. Matthew Stafford’s MVP-caliber play was what got them there, and a schedule dotted with limited passing defenses will give him the opportunity to shine again in 2017.

While Stafford can win his share of shootouts, he’ll need defensive improvements to keep him from the 34-27-type losses that stained the team’s record last fall. That’s where Ansah comes in — and where the young Ghanaian could play his way to $50 million or more on the free market.