April 26, 2013 at 2:47 pm

John Niyo

For Lions, 'phenomenal' Ziggy Ansah a risk worth taking

Allen Park A week before the Senior Bowl in late January, Jim Schwartz didn't know Ziggy Ansah's name.

On Thursday night, he heard it announced as the Lions choice for the fifth overall pick in the NFL draft.

And then almost immediately, the Lions coach was busy reconciling those two facts, defending a move that was widely criticized almost as soon as Barry Sanders joined NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the stage at Radio City Music Hall to make the selection.

After all that talk about playing it safe, all those projections that had the Lions drafting an offensive lineman, this team drafted a project?

Well, no, they'll tell you.

"We didn't draft him as a project," Schwartz insisted. "We wouldn't take a project there."

No offense, but they did. And that's fine, I guess, as long as Ansah, the BYU defensive end who arrived in the U.S. from his native Ghana barely five years ago, as quick a study as they seem to think he is.

But make no mistake, as Schwartz likes to say, this was a risky pick the Lions willingly took on a night where a lot of teams went the other route.

"He's a boom-or-bust candidate," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said, reiterating something many scouts have been saying for months. "Three years from now he's an all-pro, or he's on the streets."

That seems a bit harsh. But, hey, the same can be said for the guys who just hired him, right? If Ansah's a bust, Schwartz and general manager Martin Mayhew probably will be looking for work soon, too.

If not, opposing quarterbacks will be ducking for cover, and fans at Ford Field will be gettin' Ziggy with it, as Ansah becomes the third first-round defensive lineman to join the Lions' roster in four years.

He's come a long way

But the gulf between those two possibilities is much wider than any defensive alignment the Lions might deploy on the field, or even the "humbling" and "crazy journey" Ansah said he took to get here.

This is, after all, a guy who'd never seen a game of American football until 2008 — insert your own Matt Millen joke here — and never played one until 2010. And only then as a walk-on at BYU after twice failing to make the cut on the basketball team. Mayhew said he spoke earlier Thursday with Ansah's coach at BYU, Bronco Mendenhall, who laughed about him "not even knowing how to put his equipment on" when he showed up for his first practice.

Asked Thursday night if he could've ever imagined this a few years ago, Ansah laughed, "I'd be like, 'I don't know what you're thinking.'"

Now, I know what you're thinking. And whatever it is, you might be right. But that was bound to be the case in this draft, one that lacked impact players at the skill-positions — most notably quarterback — and had everyone guessing, GMs included, almost from the start.

The Lions had their sights set on one of top offensive tackles in the draft. But all three came off the board in short order. And that left the Lions staring, perhaps a bit uncomfortably, at a familiar face in Ansah, described by Mayhew as a "phenomenal, phenomenal athlete" — 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds with long arms and tremendous speed — and a player who "fills a big need for us."

He's also a player they'd spent a week coaching at the Senior Bowl, though, and if not for that I seriously doubt they'd have drafted him. As Mayhew admitted, that week in Mobile, Ala., "really provided us an opportunity to see what this guy is capable of."

But even they can't be sure. He only started nine games in college, and though he played virtually every position on the defensive line, he finished with just 4.5 sacks last season.

Immediate impact?

So how do you project what he could possibly do as an NFL rookie, whether he lines up and right end or left end or tight end. I mean, will he even be lining up at all?

"He'll be on the field," Mayhew assured. "He'll be playing for us."

How soon, and how much, and how well? Before the Senior Bowl, he'd never played the 9-technique position he'll be asked to play in Detroit.

"And it was an adjustment for him," Schwartz said. "He didn't know very much at all at the beginning of the week. But every practice you saw him get better, and then the game came and he dominated."

And that may be the biggest hope here, given the Lions' scheme, and the talent inside with Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, and, yes, the addition of veteran line coach Jim Washburn, who probably sees a little Javon Kearse in Ansah. When the Lions just let Ansah play, he dominated.

Given what they've got, and what they've given to get him, they've got no choice to let him play. And he'd better play well. Because everybody in Detroit knows his name now.

Getting to know …Ziggy Ansah

Position: Defensive end

School: BYU

Height/weight: 6-6/270

Hometown: Accra, Ghana

College career: As a senior in 2012, he had 62 tackles (35 solo), 4.5 sacks, one INT and one forced fumble.

Personal: Speaks Twi and Fante, two Ghanian dialects … favorite athlete is LeBron James … favorite food is fufu and peanut butter soup.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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Ziggy Ansah, a defensive end from B YU, waves to fans at Radio City Music Hall in New York after going to the Lions on Thursday night. / Al Bello/Getty Images
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