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3 reasons why tagging Ezekiel Ansah was the right move

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It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right one.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll be honest, I’ve gone back and forth on the Ezekiel Ansah franchise tag debate for the past two months. There are so many factors in play, and so many legitimate arguments for both sides. Yes, Ansah is a huge injury risk. Yes, he’s, by far, the best defensive end the Lions have. Yes, his 12.0 sacks in 2017 were largely inflated by play against backup offensive linemen. Yes, $17-18 million is a ton of money.

So when we polled fans and only 23 percent wanted Detroit to give Ansah the tag, I fully understood them. And while there’s definitely part of me that is worried about Tuesday’s decision from the Lions to officially go ahead with the franchise tag on Ansah, ultimately I think it’s the right choice. Here’s why:

Other free agent options were severely lacking

With Ansah off the board, and Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence also expected to be hit with the franchise tag, that leaves another free agency period bereft of pass-rushing talent.

Here are your top choices remaining:

  • 38-year-old Julius Peppers
  • Adrian Clayborn (9.5 sacks in 2017, 13.0 sacks from 2013-16)
  • Alex Okafor (18.0 career sacks, suffered torn Achilles in November)
  • Trent Murphy (missed 2017 due to torn ACL, 9.0 sacks in 2016, PED suspension)

So you have your pick of the litter. Either take an aging aged player, a player whose resume is bolstered by one, six-sack performance, or two average talents coming off serious injuries.

Last year, the Lions settled for the cheaper free agent options on the defensive line, and it yielded them Akeem Spence and Cornelius Washington. Doing the same in 2018 would just kick the problem down the road.

As for draft picks, Ansah’s franchise tagging changes nothing about the Lions’ strategy. The Lions still are uncommitted to Ansah long-term, so a young pass rusher should still be a high priority on draft day.

Lions could still negotiate a slightly cheaper deal

If you’re hoping Detroit gets Ziggy’s number down from $18 million to about, $10 million, you’re dreaming. There’s no way Ansah’s agents accept that deal with the franchise money essentially guaranteed at this point. Also, the Lions aren’t going to shell out a five-year contract, even if it would buy them some wiggle room in 2018.

However, by tagging Ansah now, the Lions have essentially boxed other teams out of negotiations now (or legally during the tampering period). Though technically other teams could offer Ansah a deal right now (assuming the Lions didn’t use the are “exclusive franchise tag”), no team will realistically pay the Lions the two first-round picks compensation required to sign a franchise tagged player.

That gives the Lions an opportunity to come to a deal that could lower his cap number in 2018 while still giving Ansah the $18 million in cash this year. Just as a quick example, look at the deal Calais Campbell got for four years, $60 million.

I know what you’re thinking: Why in their right mind would the Lions commit to four years of Ansah with his injury history? Well, they wouldn’t really be committing to him that long. Frequently contracts like this are structured to allow teams to get out of it after just a few years. In this case, the Jaguars could cut ties with Campbell two years into the contract and immediately save nearly $10 million in cap space. Meanwhile, Campbell gets what he wants, including a $9 million salary to start with an additional $6 million signing bonus given to him right away. His $30 million guaranteed makes certain he’s going to walk away with, at the very least, a $15 million/year average over two season.

This still comes with a two-year risk and the Lions will probably have to up the numbers to get that to at least $18 million/year, but it’s easy to see how this could work in Detroit’s favor in the end. The Lions could have Ziggy locked up if it all works out on the field, and they could simultaneously have an easy out after two years, too.

Even if the Lions don’t come to a long-term agreement, they now have the time to talk about it with Ziggy and see where negotiations currently stand.

When healthy, he’s not just good: He’s great

Premier pass rushers are hard to come by, and although we’ve only seen flashes of it lately, Ansah qualifies. To have a shot at that, it’s worth rolling the die. And considering the Lions have the cash for a one-year risk, they should absolutely do it.

Some think you have to go all the way back to Ansah’s 2015 season to find his heyday, but I argue you can just go back to the final month of the 2017 season. When Ansah was finally medically cleared of the back and knee injuries that plagued his entire year, Ansah was phenomenal. First there’s the striking difference in statistics:

First 9 games: 20 tackles, 5.0 sacks
Final 5 games: 24 tackles, 7.0 sacks

Note how Ansah wasn’t just wildly more successful as a pass rusher, but he was also a reliable run defender, too.

But if advanced metrics are more your thing, look at Pro Football Focus’ pass-rushing productivity stat, which measure the percentage of pressures (sacks + hits + hurries) for each pass rushing down. Ansah was one of the best down the stretch:

In the last six games of the season, Ansah tallied a whopping eight sacks, four hits and seven hurries on his 129 pass-rushing snaps, which resulted in a pass-rushing productivity of 12.6, the seventh-best mark among 4-3 defensive ends in that span.

Ansah’s play remained at a high level towards the end of the season. While strength of opponent certainly had something to do with it, he was still doing things no one else on the Lions roster could manage to do. And that’s why the Lions are willing to “overpay” him.

Poll

Do you agree with the Lions’ decision to franchise tag Ezekiel Ansah?

This poll is closed

  • 89%
    Yes
    (1577 votes)
  • 10%
    No
    (185 votes)
1762 votes total Vote Now