Niyo: Lions’ Ansah is anxious for a fresh start

John Niyo, The Detroit News

Allen Park — Ziggy Ansah is one of those NFL players – and there are plenty — who knows what it means to make something from nothing.

But for Ansah, the Lions’ star defensive end, it’s time to do that all over again.

A Pro Bowler two seasons ago, Ansah is coming off a frustrating 2016 campaign that saw a dramatic fall-off in production as he dealt with a high-ankle sprain for much of the season. A year after nearly eclipsing the franchise record for sacks with 14 1/2 — Robert Porcher finished with 15 in 1999 – Ansah had just two last year in the regular season.

And while he heard what he expected from his toughest critic, his father, Edward, back home in his native Ghana — “My Pops, he’s never happy with anything,” Ansah laughed — he also got some advice from his older brother when he returned home to west Africa this winter to visit family and also launch his new charitable foundation.

“I went back home,” Ansah recalled, “and the one thing my brother told me was, ‘Come into this year like you have nothing.’”

 

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So, then, here goes nothing. And to hear Ansah talk Tuesday, as he met with the media following one of the Lions’ voluntary workouts, this year better be something special.

He calls last season’s disappointing effort, a learning experience, one “that kind of teaches a person how to be a man, you know?” And though he finished it with a dominant two-sack, nine-tackle playoff effort against Seattle — finally looking like himself again as he created havoc off the right edge — Ansah still shakes his head over what might’ve been had he not gotten hurt in the home opener against Tennessee.

“I’m glad 2016 is over,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to 2017. I can’t wait. … I have a lot of catching up to do.”

So does the Lions’ defense as a whole, though. The team struggled all season to make opponents uncomfortable, finishing 31st in third-down percentage allowed, 30th in sacks and 28th in takeaways. That’s not all on Ansah, obviously. But the sack total in particular left a bad taste in his mouth.

“I take it personally,” he said. “I feel like I didn’t do my job. That is what I’m paid to do. So I’m really focused this year and I’m excited for what we have coming up.”

And for who they have coming in. Though the Lions didn’t make any big splashes on the defensive line, Ansah praised the under-the-radar signings of Cornelius Washington and Akeem Spence in free agency, as well as the return of Armonty Bryant. And general manager Bob Quinn spent six of the Lions’ nine draft selections on defensive players, including first-round pick Jarrad Davis, who’s expected to step in immediately at middle linebacker. An influx of young playmaking talent — and speed —was sorely needed with this group.

“And I like the way the draft went,” Ansah said. “Obviously, it was defensive, and defense wins championships.”

But can this one? Maybe not, but if the Lions are going to even come close, they’ll need more from Ansah, who is entering a contract year with something to prove.

He declined to talk about whether there have been any serious negotiations on a new deal this offseason. But as the fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft — and arguably the most productive first-rounder from that class — he’d demand big money if he hit the open market. Which is why he likely won’t, with the Lions able to use the franchise tag (at $17 million-plus) after this season — and again in 2019 if they want — to keep him in Detroit.

“I don’t really pay attention to that at all,” said Ansah, insisting his focus is only on winning a championship. “I know I’m still under contract. I know I’ll be here in 2017.”

And he says he knows one other thing, too, about this year.

“It’s definitely gonna be better than last year,” he said.

johnniyo@detroitnews.com

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