When/Should The Lions Extend Ziggy Ansah?
When asking the question “Should the Lions extend Ziggy Ansah?” there are two schools of thought, which transcend the fan base, there is a difference of opinion that extends to the General Managers of NFL franchises. At this point Ansah has answered the first set of divisive questions about him. He has absolutely proven that yes, he has been able to translate his eye popping numbers at the combine, 6’5″, 271lbs, 21 reps, 34.5″ vertical leap, 118″ broad jump, 7.11 second 3 cone, and a 4.26 20 yard shuttle, on to the field. Other players of his draft class and position have all fallen by the wayside, and the Ansah pick looks like it is likely the best of the Mayhew era. It was considered far from automatic that he would be able to live up to the expectations of a number five overall pick at the time. Having only two years of football experience when he was drafted, Ansah was considered the biggest risk of the first round. As far as risk/reward plays go this one has paid out, and then some. This then raises the question of, “Should the Lions extend Ansah, and if so, when?”
What do the two options look like?
The first school of thought in regards to player contracts is that the team has absolutely no reason to extend a player who will not hit unrestricted free agency for four years unless the team decides to let him. The team has Ansah under contract for this season at less than $6 million, has the option of picking up a team option on him that will pay in the area of a little over $10 million for next season, and then would be able to franchise tag him twice, for likely in the area of $17 million in 2018 and 21 million in 2019 given the current rate that the franchise tag has been increasing at the defensive end position. So the team can keep Ansah for the next four years for about $54 million. That is a $13.5 million average, and though it increases steeply toward the end, it doesn’t exceed market value until the last season, if even then. That depends on his performance and the relative market for pass rushers four seasons from now. So if you are part of this camp you believe that when asked “Should the Lions extend Ziggy Ansah?” the answer for you is no.
The second school of thought on the matter is that every year the team waits, the eventual value of the contract gets bigger, that every season the market for pass rushers goes up at the same rate or more as the salary cap. From JJ Watt, to Ndamukong Suh, to this year’s likely beneficiary, Von Miller, who has to be looking at what a much less valuable player in Olivier Vernon signed for and see dollar signs in his eyes. This school of thought says that sure, the team will pay a little more at the beginning of the contract, giving the team less flexibility to improve right now, but it will give the team savings at the end of the deal that balance out the difference. So if you are in this camp, the answer to the question “Should the Lions extend Ziggy Ansah?” is yes.
So, Should the Lions Extend Ziggy Ansah?
Well luckily two of those players were drafted in the same year and have been treated in the opposite manner by their teams. Both the Texans and the Broncos are successful franchises, with well built rosters, and in 2011 they both saw fit to draft defensive ends, and the two have become perennial candidates for defensive player of the year. The Texans have J.J. Watt, and signed him to what was at the time the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. The Broncos waited on Von Miller, and have had to use the franchise tag to keep him under their control at the end of his fifth NFL season. Miller has yet to sign with the broncos, but has shown no interest in any kind of “hometown discount,” looking for a record breaking amount of guaranteed money. It is under the assumption that he gets a similarly record breaking deal to what Watt got at the time he was extended. So let’s look at the cost difference between the two.
Let us begin with J.J. Watt and the Texans. There were few analysts that applauded the Watt contract. $108 million for 8 years was widely considered to be insane. The risk of injury to a lineman, the limited impact any player who is not a Quarterback can have on the game, these were the primary reasons for the entire sports world’s trepidation when this deal was signed. The team still had Watt under contract for two seasons when they signed this deal, meaning that for a total of $11.5 million they would have had his services for two more seasons, and instead they signed him to a deal that exceeded that number by $2 million per season on average. Obviously things have changed in the meantime. $13.5 million average for Watt doesn’t seem like an overpay any more; with the deals that have been given in free agency over the two years since then, it’s an incredible bargain. The Texans have Watt under contract until he is 32 years old and will never have a cap hit higher than the average per year value of Olivier Vernon’s deal this year. That means at some point the Giants will be paying Vernon more money than the Texans pay Watt, so who looks insane now? Rather than having cap hits of $3.6 and $7 million over the last two seasons as per his original contract, the Texans have had cap hits of $4.6, and $14 million for a total of $8 million paid out in two years that they did not have to pay.
But what will it cost them for the next six? This is obviously speculative, so take these numbers with a grain of salt, but here is the basis I will use. Just to keep the comparison as direct as possible, I will structure the hypothetical Miller deal as a 6 year deal, taking him to age 32 with the Broncos. I will use the difference between Watt’s deal and the Lions offer to Ndamokung Suh, not Suh’s eventual deal with Miami. I think, given the fact that the player is still under team control pushing it down, balanced with his recent playoff performance pushing it up, and the Broncos not being insane like the dolphins were, it’s the better basis than Miami’s eventual overpay for Miller’s market value. That puts Miller’s deal as a 6 year $123 million deal. Which given that Vernon just signed a 5 year, $85 million deal, suddenly does not sound crazy for Von Miller.
So that takes us to the final tally. The base per year number is not an accurate reflection of this as Watt’s deal had a grossly smaller than average first season, So I’ll use his actual cap numbers for the final six seasons of the deal as the basis for the comparison to keep things more accurate. I established earlier that the Texans spent $8 million in cap space that they could have saved, to get Watt’s career locked up as a Texan. But given the next six years as a comparison, assuming that my numbers are in the ballpark, they will save $31 million in cap space as a result. This is still not a perfect comparison, as the salary cap does go up every year, but even as a percentage of total cap, the Texans come out ahead and it is not even close.
The Broncos won the Super Bowl
Now the argument is going to be made that the Broncos not doing this kind of deal allowed them to sign Peyton Manning, but given that they saved only $2.1 million in cap space over two years with Von Miller’s cap hit relative to J.J. Watt’s, I’m going to have to stop that argument right there. Giving Von Miller, J.J. Watt’s deal would have affected the Peyton Manning situation in absolutely no way, and the J.J. Watt contract was not signed until the Manning scenario was already decided in Denver’s favor. If you will recall, they were the two teams directly competing for Manning’s services. In fact by moving 500K in to each of the final six years of the deal, they could have saved almost $1 million dollars in cap space over two seasons, so…. Sorry, the Manning argument is not valid.
Another factor that has to be taken in to consideration is that at the time of Watt’s extension, Miller was coming of a season that ended on IR for him. But the point of this article is not to second guess John Elway, or Bob McNair’s decisions, only to look at the eventual financial consequence of one team extending their player early, and the other waiting for their similar player. The Broncos had their reasons for waiting, but none of them are applicable to Ansah or the Lions. He is not coming off an IR ended season, but has proven himself to be a legitimate force in every aspect of the defensive game, as Watt and Miller both had by the end of their third year.
Great, but Should the Lions extend Ziggy Ansah?
Another factor to look at is that Ziggy Ansah is not getting an eight year deal. Ansah is 26 years old, despite being only a three year veteran, that is the same age as Watt and Miller who have each completed five seasons in the league. For the basis of his hypothetical extension let us assume that his deal, like Miller and Watt’s deals, takes him to age 32. Let us also be honest with ourselves for a moment. Ansah, while a top tier pass rusher has not equaled the feats either of those men had in their first three seasons. Both Miller and Watt had multiple double digit sack seasons, with 18.5 and 21.5 as their high marks respectively. Ansah has not done that. A better comparison of the current market would likely be Olivier Vernon’s 5 year $85 million contract with the Giants. Ansah is a better player than Vernon, but is under team control, which evens the playing field in terms of their likely contract value. I will use the average value of the Vernon contract value as the basis for the last four years of Ansah’s extension. I’ll give him an $8 million pay bump in the next two seasons like Watt got, taking the extension to a 6 year $92 million deal.
So let’s compare that with cost of using the team’s options for as long as possible. Four years, $53 million. leaving Ziggy a 30 year old free agent pass rusher. The market is not so kind to a 30 year-old as it is to a 26 year-old. There will not be a 6 year $123 million deal waiting at the end of the rainbow for Ziggy Ansah. More likely there is something similar to what Mario Williams just got, or best case scenario, what DeMarcus Ware got from the broncos (three years, $30 million). Adjusting for inflation, let’s presume a mixture of the two, Williams term, Ware’s value, coming in at $28 million for two seasons for a 30 year old pass rusher who is still producing four years from now. I think I’m being generous, as the league is very youth oriented in free agency. That takes the cost of the next six years to around $81 million. This means that I have to be wrong by $4.5 million per season on his age 30 free agency deal for the option of waiting not to be a better value to the team.
Seriously man, should the Lions extend Ziggy Ansah?
OK, here is the final analysis: if Ansah is willing to be honest with himself and take a 6 year deal for $81-$85 million, then the extension makes sense for the team, but if he’s looking for more, there is no financial reason to give it to him. With that said, players do not like being franchised, and they really don’t like being franchised twice. It is reasonable to assume that Ansah himself, and by extension the locker room could be negatively affected by that scenario. There is also the Matthew Stafford issue complicating things, his contract ends at the same time and the team’s ability to keep Ansah without the franchise tag. If neither player is extended going in to the 2018 off season, the chances of the team retaining both are slim.
Well folks, thanks for sticking with me on that ride. This is going to be a series of articles, so I hope you enjoyed it. Most of the situations I am looking at are nowhere near as complex as “should the Lions extend Ziggy Ansah.” But I am going to take you on a little trip down the business side of the NFL. Not too deep, as I have never negotiated a player contract, or been a front office executive. I am just a guy who knows way more about this than anyone not getting paid for their knowledge should.