The team has lost both of 2014’s opening-day starters on the interior of the line in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. They have made some moves to offset losses but even a player such as Haloti Ngata isn’t enough to supplement the departed pass rush of a one-of-a-kind talent such as Suh.
Instead, the Lions are going to have to count on development from within if the line – and ultimately the defense – is to replicate last year’s success.
That starts with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft, defensive end Ziggy Ansah.
“We think that (Ansah) has a chance to be an outstanding defensive end in this league, one of the top-tier guys,” said defensive coordinator Tyrel Austin. “If he continues to develop and progress, he’ll get there.”
Ansah entered the league from BYU – a school he attended on an academic scholarship originally - with a desire to play basketball. He tried out for the school’s basketball team twice, being cut both times, before shifting his focus to the track team – where he successfully walked. Ansah was later persuaded to try out for the football team, where he was able to successfully make the team.
Getting a late start at football, Ansah’s rare size and athleticism helped him skyrocket up draft boards, eventually winding up as a top-five pick.
Now, entering his third season, the 26 year-old defensive end is being looked at as a breakout candidate with lofty goals and expectations.
“Ziggy’s a very, very disciplined guy, he’s ambitious,” said Lions head coach Jim Caldwell. “He certainly has the physical capability to be an unusual player in this league. I’m glad (that being great is) his goal because of the fact that we expect a lot from him. He’s capable of delivering as well.”
Ansah isn’t the talented-but-raw player he was when he entered the league. He now has 2 years of NFL experience under his belt and should be able to parlay that into a step forward in 2015.
“Since I’ve been here, because of the fact that his familiarity with the concepts that he’s dealing with, last year was new for him. Obviously, you can see growth and development in that area,” said Caldwell. “Often times you can see where players play a little more slowly when they don’t quite understand everything to a tee. You see that pick up over time. He’s one I certainly think you can see he’s not thinking nearly as much. He’s reacting, he’s playing and I think in the long run we’ll all benefit from that.”
When asked about a perceived increase in size entering OTAs, Austin was quick to point out that Ansah’s combination of speed and power can be deceptive.
“No, he’s just a freak. He just looks like he’s heavy but he’s not,” said Austin. “He’s probably 275, 280 pounds where he plays at and he’s explosive. He can run, he’s athletic, he’s got all the things you need.”
In addition to Ansah, the Lions would benefit from growth amongst the team’s other young defensive ends – most notably Devin Taylor and Larry Webster. Both players have a chance to seize a larger role with the team in 2015.
“Devin looks really good so far. He looks more explosive than he was last year. He looks stronger, so we’re pleased with where he is,” said Austin. “We just have to get him to continue to develop and take that into the games so we can get more out of him, so he can get more out of himself, really. “I think when you look at Larry Webster, he put on a lot of great weight. Last year when he came in, he was about 250, maybe. But he’s a 265-, 270-pound man and he looks like a defensive end at this point. So, we’re anticipating that he’ll grow by leaps and bounds and we won’t see the proof until we get into the preseason and the contact. We like where he is so far.”