During head coach Jim Schwartz's current tenure with the Lions, it has been no secret that one of his main philosophies has been to build up a disruptive defensive front line. This was a formula Schwartz saw plenty of success using during his seven-season run as the Titans' defensive coordinator prior to becoming Detroit's head coach in January of 2009. In fact, Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew have used three first-round picks and selected six defensive linemen overall through their first five drafts with Schwartz at the helm.
In 2010, the Lions selected DT Ndamukong Suh (Nebraska) with the second overall selection before taking DT Nick Fairley (Auburn) the following year with the 13th overall pick. Although he struggles to keep his composure on the field at times, Suh has been the linchpin for Detroit's defensive line, while Fairley has started to bring a solid return over the past two seasons after a slow start as a rookie.
This past April, Mayhew and Schwartz pulled the trigger on BYU DE Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah with the fifth overall pick, and took South Carolina DE Devin Taylor in the fourth round. These selections made sense after the Lions had lost both starting defensive ends -- Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch -- to free agency in the offseason. Both Ansah and Taylor have shown well as rookies, but it is Ansah who has stolen the show and currently leads all rookies with seven sacks through the first 13 weeks of the regular season.
Ansah was a unique story coming out last year. Born in Ghana, Ansah played soccer growing up before coming to the United States with his parents and enrolling at BYU on an academic scholarship and joining the track team. Ansah tried out for the school's basketball team but was cut before giving it a run at football in 2010. He stuck with the football team and developed into one of the top prospects in the country two years later.
There was no questioning Ansah's upside as he had the size at 6-foot-5 and 271 pounds with 35-inch arms to go along with freakish athleticism he showed on tape. He confirmed his athleticism at the NFL combine last February with a 4.63 40-yard dash, 34.5-inch vertical and 4.26-second short shuttle being the highlights.
However, there were some concerns as Ansah lacked ideal experience coming out. In fact, Ansah had only nine career starts -- all coming as a senior in 2012. That said, while he lacked seasoning, Ansah showed natural instincts on tape, which helped ease some concerns. In addition, the Lions' coaching staff were fortunate enough to spend the entire week coaching Ansah during the Senior Bowl last January, when they clearly became more comfortable with him as a player and a person.
Ansah missed the Chicago and Pittsburgh games in early November with an ankle injury. However, he has appeared in 10 games, making eight starts when healthy, and he already appears on tape to be a young blossoming star.
First, he has been a very strong edge-setter against the run. Ansah plays with quality leverage and flashes the heavy hands and explosive upper body power to strike blockers and keep contain. He has also been disciplined in keeping edge contain and shows above-average range as a run defender.
Where Ansah has made his biggest impact is as a pass-rusher. He is coming off the ball with above-average quickness and proper leverage. His length, flexibility and power combination is providing fits for offensive tackles. Ansah has one of the more natural and explosive speed-to-power moves, which has allowed him to put offensive tackles on their heels. He also has the size and versatility to reduce inside on occasion, where he can provide disruption from the interior.
Finally, Ansah has shown the ability to finish by having the strength to work through contact and a quick closing burst to secure the sack.
Ansah still has room for improvement with his hands in terms of technique. He will get stuck on blocks for too long on occasion and must continue to develop as a counterpuncher.
Overall, though, Ansah continues to show improvement with each week. In fact, he has four sacks in the past two games against Tampa Bay and Green Bay and is making a late push for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Not bad for a guy who didn't even know how to correctly put on pads three years ago.