The Detroit Lions must create a new identity on defense, now that they're no longer spearheaded by Ndamukong Suh at the tackle position. Suh signed with the Miami Dolphins this offseason, leaving a glaring vacancy for a new Lion to take over as the team's most dominant D-lineman.
The player in line to assume that role is defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, a first-round pick out of BYU in the 2013 NFL Draft (5th overall). Through his first two NFL seasons, Ansah has been a quiet contributor with 15.5 sacks. Overall, he has been solid but not spectacular.
However, by the end of last season, the Lions started to realize they have no idea how high Ansah's ceiling goes.
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"He is some kind of player, and he's developing by leaps and bounds," Lions head coach Caldwell told Kyle Meinke of MLive.com last December. "Every week he'll do something that will sort of vault him into a different level when you're evaluating. His strength, his speed at which he runs, the size of man that he is, his awareness, his hustle, and he's made plays all over the field."
At 6-foot-6 and 278 pounds, Ansah can become a wrecking ball for the Lions as a pass-rusher. When it comes to his play, the 26-year-old end's goals are qualitative rather than quantitative -- and the label he strives for is "great."
"I don't put numbers on what I'm trying to accomplish," Ansah told Lions senior writer Tim Twentyman. "I'm just trying to be the greatest. The greatest at my position and what I do"
Caldwell is an offensive-minded head coach, so it's on on defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to unleash Ansah in 2015. Last year, Austin orchestrated the NFL's second-stingiest defense in terms of total yards allowed (4,815). His platoon ranked eighth when it came to sacks (42).
Austin's next challenge is to maximize Ansah's impact. It's time to take the unparalleled athletic potential pundits talked about when he was a draft prospect and turn it into premier production.
The man who drafted Ansah, general manager Martin Mayhew, believes the Lions are on the cusp of making this happen.
"I think he can be even better," Mayhew told Justin Rodgers of MLive.com in February. "I think he's a good, solid player right now. I think this guy can be a phenomenal player, a great player if he keeps coming the way he's coming. He's just been a guy who's consistently improved at every stage, at every step along the way."
If the progress he showed last season was any sign of what's to come, it won't be long until Ansah is deemed Detroit's most feared defender. That's why it's more important than ever for him to build upon what he's been able to accomplish so far and to come back even stronger this season.
"He's still got some more improvement he can do," Mayhew said, via MLive.com. "This is a really big offseason for him as far as coming back and continuing to build on what he started building."
It may have taken him a few years to fully awaken, but Ansah has been a sleeping giant for the Lions and is finally ready to emerge in 2015.
Photo Credit: Tim Fuller/Contract Photographer