The Detroit Lions designated DE Ezekiel Ansah as their franchise player Tuesday, an expected move that will pay him $17.5 million in 2018 if the two sides don't reach a long-term agreement by mid-July and he plays on the one-year tender.
Why was this always the most likely outcome?
Since Ansah's breakout 14½-sack season in 2015, he's been limited to 14 combined sacks (12 in 2017) over the past two seasons, when a variety of injuries have cost him just five games but limited him in several more.
Ansah turns 29 in May, and with new coach Matt Patricia and his staff coming in, it makes sense to see whether Ansah can put it all together from health and production standpoints in a new scheme prior to making a multi-year investment that would likely cost the Lions at least two to three times the amount of guaranteed cash they're currently set to pay him this season.
Make no mistake: Ansah, the fifth overall pick in 2013, has shown he can be a dominant force, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound wrecking ball vs. the run and pass. The Ghana native is also a relative late bloomer who's new to football after he only began playing at BYU in 2010. Ansah just hasn't been able to produce on a down-to-down basis at the NFL level — he has essentially been a part-time player the past two seasons — because of nagging ankle, knee and back injuries.
But the Lions have very little in the way of other proven pass rushers; last season the closest pursuer after Ansah's 12 sacks was little known Anthony Zettel, a former sixth-rounder. When Ansah's pass-rush production was virtually nonexistent two seasons ago, Detroit counted on Kerry Hyder, who had appeared in one career game prior to breaking out with eight sacks.
Hyder, though, is coming off an Achilles injury that ended his 2017 campaign before it began, and the Lions' pass rush has finished 23rd and 30th in sack percentage, respectively, the past two seasons since Ansah's breakthrough season vaulted them to third overall in '15.
Finding an edge rusher ranks near the top of GM Bob Quinn's to-do list this offseason, but with options capable of offering immediate help seemingly sparse in the draft and free agency, he couldn't risk Ansah hitting the market and a team with an even better cap situation than the Lions (roughly $30 million counting the tag for Ansah) luring the long and powerful defender away.
So if the two sides don't find common ground before the season, the Lions will hope for Ansah to rediscover his 2015 form and create a good problem for them to have next offseason. How he fits in Patricia's scheme will be fun to watch, as the defensive-minded coach has had plenty of talented pass rushers but few with Ansah's unique traits.