When the New Orleans Saints signed free agent defensive end Alex Okafor to a 1-year deal last off-season in March of 2017, they likely never envisioned that nearly one year later that they'd be right back where they started from, in their attempts to get All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan some help on the defensive line for the team's pass rush.
It was just a few months ago back during Week #11 of the 2017 NFL season, when New Orleans was dealt a serious blow via an on-the-field injury, when Okafor went down with a season-ending Achilles injury during a come-from-behind victory over the Washington Redskins.
While the Saints were eventually able to whether the storm in Okafor's absence and still managed to win their division and make the Playoffs, it now leaves them guessing in the current 2018 NFL off-season as to what their plans are for the future at one of the more "key" positions for their much-improved defense.
The Saints signed Okafor on a one-year deal in last year's 2017 NFL Free Agency, and turned out to be one of their best free agent signings in quite some time.
He ended up evolving into the PERFECT complement to All-Pro Left Defensive End Cam Jordan on the other outside edge pass rush position, appearing in 10 games with 10 starts and totaled 43 tackles (27 solo) and 4 1/2 sacks.
But then he ripped up his Achilles tendon in the thrilling come-from-behind win over the Redskins, and now Okafor’s injury — along with the fact that Okafor is once again a Free Agent himself — complicates the situation.
Assuming that he heals up and recovers fully, you’d have to think that Okafor could return for the start of the 2018 season. But on the "flip side", what if Okafor doesn't recover fully? He's only 27, but he may not be ready in time for Training Camp in late July, regardless of where or who he chooses to play for in 2018.
The Saints will still have back-up 3rd year veteran Hau'oli Kikaka returning next year, although he has endured while recovering from a knee injury that he suffered in Mini-Camp of 2016.
Kikaha, the Saints' 2nd Round pick in their 2015 NFL Draft, is a beloved player but has missed an inordinate amount of playing time with a series of injuries including that torn ACL in June 2016 that has rendered him unavailable on most NFL GameDays. As a result, it leaves his future with the team in doubt, as well.
The Saints found some relief late in the season with veteran defensive end George Johnson, but it remains to be seen if the 30-year old will be brought back for a full season in 2018. Rookie Trey Hendrickson had an impressive first season with the team and isn’t going anywhere, but it remains unclear how much of a role he will have at the position moving forward.
Bottom line: the Saints STILL can use another reliable player on the opposite outside edge of their defensive line to complement Jordan, and the upcoming 2018 NFL Free Agency and April's 2018 NFL Draft, should provide several intriguing options to fulfill that responsibility.
With that in mind, this morning we look at the player in next month's upcoming 2018 NFL Free Agency (beginning on March 14th) who could be the answer (no pun intended) to the Saints' lingering issues at defensive end: Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah.
Because the Dallas Cowboys are VERY likely to place the Franchise Tag on 26-year old defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence — the top pass rushing defensive end (14.5 sacks in 2017) in this year's Free Agent Class — the only other player (because the other available 2018 Free Agent pass-rush ends are all over 30 years old or just aren't deserving of a big "pay day") truly worth targeting for New Orleans in 2018 Free Agency is Ansah.
The Lions chose the 28-year old Ansah (he turns 29 in May) out of BYU with the 5th pick in the 2013 NFL draft, and he produced immediately with 32 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games as a rookie.
He then followed up his rookie season with a phenomenal 2nd season that included a career-high 14 1/2 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2015. In 2016, he had only two sacks in 13 games, dealing with an ankle injury for much of the season.
Then there was last year in 2017, where Ansah had an "up-and-down" 2017 season while producing six of his 12 sacks in the final two games of the year. He finished with 44 tackles and a forced fumble in 14 games, spending much of the season on the injury report with knee and back injuries.
The Lions still have the option of placing the Franchise Tag on Ansah for around $18 million, but should Detroit decide to let Ansah walk, he will have plenty of suitors; and for a Saints defensive line always seeking to boost its pass rush capabilities, Ansah (provided he stays healthy) would fit nicely in NOLA with his 36 and a half sacks in 5 NFL seasons.
For those Saints fans who may have forgotten: the 6-foot-5, 270 pound Ansah was an absolute TERROR for opposing offenses during his time at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah from 2010 to 2012.
Ansah — a native of Accra, Ghana in West Africa — tried out for the basketball team in 2008 and 2009. After failing both times, he joined the track team but left and joined the football program in 2010.
After switching sports, Ansah earned the trust of coaches and continued to practice with the special teams units through the 2011 season. In 18 games, Ansah accumulated a total of 10 tackles (the majority on special teams), one pass breakup, and one credited quarterback hurry.
Despite still not being on scholarship entering his senior season, Ansah bulked up to nearly 270 pounds in an effort to learn two defensive roles, outside linebacker and defensive end. He lined up at defensive end in a three-man front, outside linebacker in a four man front, and even some snaps at three technique or nose tackle on third downs.
Finally, in his one season as a full-time starter, Ansah tallied 62 tackles, 13 for loss, including 4.5 sacks. The versatile defensive lineman added nine pass breakups, one forced fumble, and one interception while lining up as a rush outside linebacker, defense end and defensive tackle.
Now 6 years later, Ansah finds himself of the cusp of landing a huge payday, and the only question now is whether or not Detroit will choose to use the franchise tag to keep him off the market and ensure his return for at least the 2018 season.
New Lions head coach Matt Patricia hasn't commented yet on Ansah's status, and putting the franchise tag on Ansah would be a bigger one year cap hit than what would be expected on a long-term deal, but it also leaves the Lions with some flexibility beyond 2018.
According to Spotrac.com's market value metric, Ansah is worth a two year, $19.7 million dollar deal that would pay him around $9.5 million dollars per season. That's a decent chunk of change for which ever NFL team might decide to pay him, but it's also considered the "going rate" for a top-notch pass rusher in 2018.