The Detroit Lions Should Still Hang On To Ziggy Ansah In 2018
There is a temptation to see things in absolutes when it comes to sports. Everyone loves neat and easy arguments that start with a fact, use that fact to frame an argument, and then draw a conclusion. This is not going to be that.
I am going to give you the argument against what I believe, and then try to convince you that I am right anyway. Ziggy Ansah may not even be a divisive figure in Lions fandom at this point. Every team’s fanbase has a whipping boy. Ansah has been that for the Detroit Lions in 2017.
I think he should still be on the team in 2018, by almost any means necessary.
The Reasons The Lions Shouldn’t Tag Ziggy Ansah
The franchise tag for defensive ends next year would be $17.3 million if it were calculated today. The argument is simple, Ziggy Ansah is not worth that cap figure. Ansah will be a 29-year-old defensive end coming off a pair of subpar seasons.
He has been plagued with knee, ankle, and back injuries over the last two seasons. His production has fallen off drastically over the last two seasons. In 2015 Ansah was one of the Lions bright spots and appeared on course to become a dominant player. Since then Ansah has had six sacks in 21 games. His ten quarterback hurries in 2016 were also less than the Lions would have expected. Everything about Ansah’s play in the last two seasons has been a disappointment.
Additionally, the Lions 2016 sixth round pick Anthony Zettel is having a breakout season with six sacks in nine games. Add to that, the return of Kerry Hyder as a restricted free agent in 2018, and the Lions have a pair of pass rushers that have been more productive than Ziggy Ansah in two years. The team also signed Cornelius Washington to a multi-year deal in 2017.
He has done fairly well providing a secondary pass rush this season. Finally, undrafted free agents Jeremiah Valoaga and Alex Barrett looked promising in the pre-season. Those are all the reasons to let Ansah walk in the offseason, and hope that the team gets a compensatory pick back.
Why That Number Does Not Matter
Roster construction has very little to do with a players price matching their production on a year in and year out basis. It’s more complex than that. The more important question when looking at the franchise tag is what resources the team would have to allocate to improve performance at one of the most important positions in football.
To get a player with the 2018 upside of Ziggy Ansah the Detroit Lions do not have a lot of options. When Kevin Seifert of ESPN listed the top available free agents on October 11, there was one pass rusher. That pass rusher was Ziggy Ansah. There is no free agent replacement for what Ansah might be able to put up for the Lions. They can not take the money that they would be using on Ansah and redirect it to fix their pass rush problem.
The second thing to consider is how valuable that cap space really is to the Lions. I broke down the Lions real salary cap scenario for 2018. The numbers are no longer perfect, but in the end, I think the players who have been better than expected balance those who have been worse. The Lions situation lets them sign their rookies, hold on to Ansah, Swanson, and Wilson or Lawson; the biggest free agent players they will have, and still have 15 or so million dollars to improve the team.
That doesn’t sound like much, but it is this roster plus a draft and two or three high-level free agent starters if spent well. The Lions do not need the salary cap space that Ansah’s tag would use up at all, and they are not going to be able to effectively use it elsewhere.
There Are Three Different Tags
The Lions should not use the exclusive franchise tag. That version of the tag lets only the Lions talk about any sort of contract with the player. That’s a terrible idea. I am also lukewarm on using the non-exclusive franchise tag. That version allows other teams to negotiate with Ansah but the Lions can match any offer. It also requires that the other team give the Lions two first-round picks as compensation if the Lions choose not to match an offer. Not a single team in the NFL would even consider that price, the net effect of the Non-exclusive tag is identical. The value of those two tags is the previously discussed $17.3 million.
Behind door number three is the option I would choose. The transition tag allows Ansah to negotiate with other teams, and also gives the Lions the right to match any offer he gets. This tag uses the average of the top ten salaries at his position, rather than the top five that are used by the first two versions of the tag. The base number for this tag sits at $15.2 million.
Of course, any version of the tag ensures that a player gets a minimum 20% raise from the previous year, so for Ansah, it works out to just under $15.3 million. This tag does not give the Lions back any compensation for losing Ansah. All it gives them is the opportunity to match any contract offer that the player signs.
How Is That A Good Idea?
The transition tag lowers the bar for salary expectations. The player can test the market freely with only the right of refusal hanging over negotiations with other teams. The Lions have as much or more cap space than almost anyone, which will scare off some of their competitors for Ansah’s services. No general manager wants to spend his valuable offseason time doing another team’s work for them generally.
This also gives the player and his agent a fairly accurate appraisal of the player’s value on the open market. If Ansah does not do something in the second half of the year that number is going to be lower than a lot of people are speculating right now. If the contract offer is incredibly high, the Lions walk away with a compensatory pick the following season.
Ansah is not going to get a particularly long contract anywhere. He will be 29 or 31 going into next year depending on who you ask. He is definitely not going to get a lot of money up front, coming off multiple terrible seasons has the effect of limiting teams confidence in a player. The NFL’s general managers have seen exactly what Lions fans have.
The worst case scenario is probably that Ansah just signs the tender the moment it is put on him. As I illustrated above, the Lions do not need that cap space for anything in 2018. That puts Ansah in the situation of being in a contract year as he enters his 30s. It also buys the Lions a year to assess what they have. It gives them another year to come up with a solution for their pass rush problem.
The Draft and Free Agency
Many will say that the Lions should draft a pass rusher in the first round. That sentiment is not wrong, but that doesn’t solve the problem for next year. The 2017 draft class was absolutely loaded with pass rushing talent. There are currently two players from that draft class with more sacks than Ziggy Ansah this season. One of them, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson was drafted in the fourth round. That is not something that can be predicted. Five pass rushers went in round one. One of them has 0.5 sacks more than Ansah.
For those in the “take that money and go shopping in free agency” crowd, I have some bad news. There are four free agents that are going to be available who have more sacks than Ziggy Ansah. One is Adrian Clayborne, who has eight sacks on the year but had six in one game. He played in 65 games prior to this season and had 20.5 sacks. Another is the 37-year-old Julius Peppers. He has all but said he will play as long as hometown team the Panthers want him, and no more.
Alex Okafor was on pace to get a pretty good payday in the offseason before he tore his achilles tendon. His year ended after 10 games, and he was only 0.5 sacks ahead of Ansah, who has missed two. The Achilles tendon tear is one of the few injuries that you just never know how well a player will recover. The last is Demarcus Lawrence. If you think he is not going to be franchise tagged in Dallas, I have some ocean front property to sell you in Arizona. In short, there is nowhere to spend the money that will get the team the result you want.
That Leaves One Solution
With or without Ansah, defensive end is the team’s number one draft need, but rookies almost never produce at an elite level as pass rushers in year one. Ansah’s presence takes the heat off anyone they pick to produce in immediately. All it costs them is cap space they don’t need. Teams that spend $30 million in yearly salary on free agents in a year always regret it in short order.
Tagging Ansah gives the Lions a shot at a top ten pass rusher for one year while they groom replacements. In the end, there is no other option that gives them any hope of that.