INDIANAPOLIS — It was the move the Detroit Lions had to make. With a suspect defensive line devoid of pass-rushers and the team’s top option, Ezekiel Ansah, a couple weeks away from becoming a free agent, the Lions needed to find a way to keep him around.
When he’s healthy, Ansah is worth all of the $17 million-plus he’ll earn with the franchise tag this season, as evidenced by his 12 sacks in the 2017 season, including six in the last two games. When he isn’t healthy — that has been the issue since his breakout 2015 season — he’s still a good player, but he is not a defense-transforming one.
The Lions, with a defensive line that needs remaking, need to have at least one dominant player in the defensive front.
Keeping Ansah for at least 2018 — and there’s always a chance a long-term deal is worked out — gives first-year coach Matt Patricia some cover on his defensive front.
Patricia did well without a star in his defensive front in New England, but with Detroit’s unit learning a new system and a potential star player still on the roster, the Lions would have made a mistake by letting Ansah go.
Using the franchise tag is the right move because of Ansah’s injury issues. Although he has played in 13 or more games every season of his career, he hasn’t appeared in all 16 since the 2015 season, when he had 14.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. The 28-year-old has also played hurt many, many times in his career, and a long-term deal would be a concern because it’s tough to predict what his health will be two or three years from now.
Ansah acknowledged last season that he played through a lot in 2017. He also felt that he could return to his old form. When pressed, he wouldn’t give specifics as to why he felt that way, but that’s what the Lions are hoping for in 2018.
Locking up Ansah shouldn’t change Detroit’s plan, either. The Lions still need help on the defensive line, specifically their pass rush. If a player such as Marcus Davenport or Harold Landry is available at No. 20 in April’s draft, Detroit should strongly consider taking one of those players.
Those players, like Ansah, have a chance to be stars. Right now, the Lions have Ansah and a couple of decent complementary pieces rushing the passer in Anthony Zettel and Kerry Hyder, who is coming off an Achilles injury.
Franchising Ansah became even more vital when evaluating other pass-rushers available. There were not many, if any, pass-rushers available on the free-agent market who have the talent of Ansah.
Demarcus Lawrence was the most comparable player who could hit free agency, but Dallas is expected to find a way to keep its top pass-rusher. The market after Lawrence and Ansah dipped dramatically, with no obvious replacements available.
Detroit couldn’t do what it did last year, when offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Larry Warford left in free agency. The Lions had plans to replace both of them, giving big money to Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang to try to shore up the offensive line.
Although those moves didn’t entirely pan out — Lang dealt with injuries most of the season and Wagner got hurt, too — they were comparable replacements, if not upgrades, to the players the Lions let go.
With Ansah, the options just weren’t there, which is why Detroit’s decision to place the franchise tag on the defensive end was the right move — and really the only sensible move — the Lions could have made.