Lions nab BYU’s Ansah with fifth overall pick

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — A week before coaching him at the Senior Bowl in January, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz hadn’t even heard of Brigham Young defensive end Ezekiel Nana “Ziggy” Ansah.

On Thursday night, Ansah completed his fascinating rise when the Lions selected him with the fifth pick overall in the NFL Draft.

“It’s been a humbling experience, a crazy journey,” Ansah said.

Ansah hadn’t even heard of football while growing up in Ghana, Africa. He didn’t watch his first football game until 2008, when he came to the United States on an academic scholarship. He didn’t start playing football until 2010, after trying out twice for the BYU basketball team and spending a year on the track squad.

Before last season, his first year as a starter in football, Ansah wasn’t even viewed as a NFL prospect, much less the No. 5 pick.

Asked what he would have said a few years ago if someone had told him how this would all turn out, Ansah answered, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, man.”

He added: “But this is reality. I know I earned it.”

Ansah is considered “raw,” but he’s a freakish athlete at 6-foot-5, 271 pounds.

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock described him as a “boom or bust” type of prospect.

“Three years from now he’s an All-Pro or he’s on the streets,” Mayock said.

Ansah fills a much-needed role as a pass rusher for the Lions.

Detroit had only three defensive ends on its roster after releasing Kyle Vanden Bosch and losing Cliff Avril in free agency.

“He’s a phenomenal athlete, a guy that fills a big need for us,” general manager Martin Mayhew said of Ansah. “He’s the best player available and he fills a need. This was a time where the grade matched up with the need and it worked out great for us.

“I talked with his former coach, Bronco Mendenhall, about when he came in, not even knowing how to put his equipment on, and how far he’s come.

“One thing he talked about Ziggy is how much he loves the game and how much he loves to learn the game, how much passion he has to learn about it.”

Ansah’s skill set could fit nicely in the Lions’ “Wide-9” defensive scheme, in which the ends play extremely wide and attack the quarterback and backfield.

He should benefit from the presence of defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.

“I just can’t wait to be a part of that line,” Ansah said.

Schwartz and the Lions’ staff coached Ansah for that week at the Senior Bowl, which helped convince them he was worthy of such a valuable pick. Ansah was named the defensive MVP after dominating the game.

“We saw the way he can learn, how quickly he picks things up,” Schwartz said. “We don’t think he’s a project. We wouldn’t take a project there (with the No. 5 pick).

“When people talk about Ziggy, they say he’s going to need work on learning the game and instincts. But watch this guy. He’s inexperienced but he’s very instinctive.”

While most rave about Ansah’s speed for his size (4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash), along with his pass-rush potential, Schwartz was also impressed with Ziggy’s strength and ability to play against the run.

“Really tough for tight ends to handle,” Schwartz said.

Ansah had just 4 1/2 sacks in 31 games over his three-year college career — all coming last season, when he made his only nine starts.

Which raises the question: Why didn’t he have more production?

“You can’t fault the guy for doing what they asked him to do in their scheme,” Schwartz said. “They weren’t an attack team. They played at the line of scrimmage and took on blocks.

“He’s a full-grown man. He played across that front. There’s not many defensive ends that can go live in the A-gap (in the middle of the line). He’s a guy who did it. He can play right defensive end, left defensive end, we can move him around a little bit.

“We like him as a run defender, we like him as a pass rusher. His length is something you can’t dismiss, his ability to get his hands up (to knock down passes).”

There was speculation that the Lions wanted an offensive tackle, but the three candidates — Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson — were all off the board in the first four picks.

Boom or bust, the Lions ended up with one of the more amazing stories in NFL Draft history.