ALLEN PARK, Mich. – In October, as he was going through yet another season with injuries and more questions about his health and his future, Ezekiel Ansah offered a glimpse into how he felt, about the emotional pain his physical injuries were placing on him.
“I wouldn’t wish that upon nobody,” Ansah said. “I’m just happy that I’ve been better over the weeks, and I’m just looking forward to keep improving.”
That was always the problem for Ansah. When he looked like he was getting back to himself, another injury would slow him down again. He had four sacks in seven games this season. The burst and skill that once made him one of the game’s top defensive ends was still there.
But those injuries, they just never left Ansah alone – the one protector of opposing quarterbacks the 29-year-old pass-rushing dynamo couldn’t overpower or shake. The latest one, a shoulder injury Sunday against the Cardinals, ended his season and possibly his five years with the Detroit Lions.
Those injuries that took from the Lions a prodigious talent that could change a game on his own when he was healthy. Those injuries took from Ansah the majority of what could be his last season in Detroit.
The Lions shouldn’t franchise tag Ansah for a second straight year, not with his continued poor health history. And it would seem unlikely Detroit would be wise to sign Ansah again for anything other a short-term, medium-sized-or-smaller contract – a deal he would likely be able to best on the open market. Which probably means that the last image of Ansah in a Lions uniform came Sunday, when he walked off the State Farm Stadium field in Arizona in considerable pain before being carted to the locker room.
Moving on from Ansah would makes sense. A team can’t pay a guy who can’t stay healthy. They, more than most, would have an idea of the litany of injuries he has played with. And yes, it would be a bad look for an organization that, were Ansah were not to be re-signed, would have seven straight first-round picks not receive a second contract with the club. But it would be a necessary move. It’s possible Taylor Decker, Jarrad Davis or Frank Ragnow end up getting second deals down the road, but of the Martin Mayhew era of draft picks, only his first two draft picks – Matthew Stafford and Brandon Pettigrew – got second contracts in Detroit.
Some happened because of poor planning or wide-eyed optimism gone awry (Ndamukong Suh), others because of trade (Laken Tomlinson), a combination of performance and injury (Nick Fairley), injury (Jahvid Best), questionable free agency decision by the club in retrospect (Bob Quinn letting Riley Reiff go and signing Rick Wagner) and cutting a talent who had underwhelmed in Detroit but then flourished elsewhere (Eric Ebron).
That’s a combination of poor drafting, poor decision-making from both Mayhew and Quinn and in Tomlinson and Ebron’s cases, new homes leading to improved play.
Of all of the first-round picks departing, though, Ansah might be the most frustrating because of what could have been.
Off the field, he was a model for what a franchise should want. He led a drive to donate at least 94,000 water bottles to Flint, Michigan, during the city’s water crisis. In Ghana, his foundation worked with a children’s hospital to help provide care to sick kids. He brought American football to his country through camps each summer. He invited teammates to join him in Africa to experience a different culture in the world and openly talked about wanting to bring an NFL game to Africa like the league has done in England and Mexico.
On the field, he was a great story, the raw talent from Ghana who walked on at BYU and played his way into being a first-round pick. The guy multiple former Lions, who had been around him for years, said was the best overall athlete on the team because of how much he could do. He showed it messing around with a soccer ball before joint practices with Pittsburgh in 2016. When he was healthy on the field, he bent around and blew by linemen in his way and once chased Adrian Peterson down from behind.
The 2015 season, when he had a career-high 14.5 sacks, made him a potential star. It never got better after that. Ankle and shoulder injuries sapped his effectiveness in 2016. Knee and back injuries hampered his 2017 season, one that looks good in the books with 12 sacks, except nine came in three games. During that season, Ansah even admitted he had gone through “a lot” that year.
Then there was this year, less than one healthy half and the sadness that followed. A shoulder injury knocked him out of the season opener. The next five weeks filled with speculation about his injury and his future – and with the Lions not usually answering questions about injuries or explaining what was going on, it just left more questions and frustration than explanation for what Ansah was once again going through.
He returned. He looked healthy-ish again. Started to make plays. Then came another shoulder injury. Another walk off the field in pain and an all-too-familiar sight, an injured Ansah unable to help his team.