'Even better version' possible for Lions' Pro Bowler Ansah

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah arrives to the field for the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.

Allen Park -- The question was a fair one, given Ezekiel Ansah isn't exactly a graybeard.

What does Ansah, 27, have to do to take that next step into the upper echelon of NFL defensive ends?

"I like to think he's already there," Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin quickly shot back Thursday. "The one thing people might overlook because he wasn't a household name, this guy is as fine a football player as I've ever been around."

This, mind you, from a guy who's been coaching football, from coast to coast, for a quarter-century.

Thoughts, Ziggy?

"Ummm," Ansah said, with a wide-as-can-be grin. "I appreciate you, Teryl.

"It's nice."

Ansah is entering his fourth season in the NFL, and is coming off easily his best showing, when he racked up 14.5 sacks while playing all 16 games last season.

Only two players in the league had more sacks – Houston's J.J. Watt (17.5) and Oakland's Khalil Mack (15.0).

Ansah and the Lions' defense get a huge test right out of the gate Sunday, when they open the season against the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Andrew Luck and his stable of talented, swift wide receivers, led by T.Y. Hilton, who had 69 catches for 1,124 yards last season.

“They can stretch you in all different directions, horizontally, vertically,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “It’s going to be a real challenge."

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Challenges are nothing new for Ansah, of course. His story has been well-told – he grew up in Ghana, playing soccer, then basketball. He came to the United States to attend Brigham Young, where he twice was cut from the basketball team.

Then someone suggested football. For the first time. In college. In 2010.

Amazingly, by 2013, he was a first-round pick by the Lions. And by the end of 2015, he was an NFL Pro Bowler.

"Didn't play from the time he was 8, 9 and 10 years old like a lot of guys," Caldwell said. "But he has all the necessary tools to be outstanding, and he has a real, nasty streak in him, which is something that makes a tremendous difference."

As Caldwell spoke, he smiled.

He doesn't often smile when addressing the media, of course.

"It's the way he plays the game," Caldwell said. "He does it and does it well.

"(If) he can stay healthy, you'll see an even better version of him because he's just really starting to scratch the surface of all of the things that he's capable of doing within the context of our scheme.

"All you do is take a look at the film. You look at practice film, even. He does things that no one else does. He has some very unusual traits and characteristics."

Ansah, who only really played one full season of college ball, had eight sacks as a rookie for the Lions, then 7.5 his second season, before really taking off last year.

With the Lions' defense battling several key injuries on defense – including the early-season ailments of veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and the season-long (just about) absence of outside linebacker DeAndre Levy – plus the loss of free agent Ndamukong Suh to the Miami Dolphins, Ansah had to be the guy.

Challenge accepted. He sure was the guy, especially as the Lions put together a strong finish to the season, winning six of their final eight games – and even as opposing offenses started to really key in on him.

"Obviously, teams do pay attention to me," said Ansah, who speaks softly – and not that frequently. "Just gotta find a way to beat them."

He figures to have more help this year, with Ngata fully healthy to start the season, and with a year of 4-3 scheme now under his belt, and Levy back from a nagging hip injury. Tackle Tyrunn Walker also is back from a broken fibula, with second-round pick A'Shawn Robinson behind him in the depth chart.

The Lions also are enthused about the strides cornerback Nevin Lawson and strong safety Tavon Wilson made last season, and they're finally optimistic outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy might finally be ready to reach his potential.

"It feels good," said Ansah, who had his fifth-year option for next season picked up in May, "to have all the guys back."

Austin doesn't want to put a number on the goals for Ansah's sack total this season. Neither does Ansah, who said he just wants to improve on last season.

That, a reporter pointed out to Ansah, would mean at least 15, which would tie Robert Porcher's Lions record, set in 1999.

"Good job," Ansah said, cracking up the press pool at the Lions' practice facility.

"I just come out every day just to work hard, just be the best I can be."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tonypaul1984

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