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Larry Stone: Will Seahawks’ bet on pass-rusher Ziggy Ansah pay off?

UPDATED: Sun., May 12, 2019

Newly signed by the Seattle Seahawks, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah rushes the line for the Detroit Lions during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Detroit. (Paul Sancya / AP)
Newly signed by the Seattle Seahawks, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah rushes the line for the Detroit Lions during the second half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Detroit. (Paul Sancya / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – For the Seahawks, Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah is worth dreaming over.

This is a Seahawks addition predicated on upside and best-case scenario. But for a team striving to find its way back to the top, that’s a good way to go.

If the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Ansah – fast enough to be a sprinter on BYU’s track team, strong enough to be called a “phenom” for his disruptive ability by teammate Ricky Jean Francois, talented enough to be picked No. 5 overall in the draft by the Lions – is at his best, the Seahawks can soar in 2019.

Ansah, who signed a one-year deal in Seattle on Friday, will be counted on to fill a gaping hole at edge-rusher. And the hope is he won’t just be a body out there, but someone who at his best can match or exceed the production the Seahawks lost with the Frank Clark trade to Kansas City.

You can find statistics showing that when healthy enough to play (tuck that phrase away; we’ll get back to it), Ansah was as productive as any pass-rusher in the NFL last year. He has had full seasons in which that was the case, especially his 14.5-sack season in 2015, and his 12-sack season in 2017.

If the Seahawks are getting THAT Ansah, a guy who, at age 30, would be highly motivated to perform like a demon on this one-year deal so he can have one more payday, well, then May 8 might be remembered as a turning-point day in the evolution of the Seahawks.

Ah, but here comes the counterpoint. Ansah arrives with a blinking red caution light. Injuries took what looked to be a Ring of Honor career with the Lions and ground it to a halt. Some reports say Ansah might not be ready for the start of the season after shoulder surgery in December. But Ansah also suffered knee, back and ankle issues during his six seasons in Detroit. Only twice did he play 16 games.

I perused some newspaper articles from Detroit when Ansah was placed on injured reserve in December, ending his season (and, it turned out, his Lions career). The headlines were poignant in their message of an unfilled career: “Injuries have derailed Ansah; Defensive end hasn’t reached full potential with the Lions” and, “Ansah legacy? Oh, what might have been,” to cite a couple.

Detroit Free Press columnist Shawn Windsor wrote of Ansah, “It’s a crushing but inevitable tale in sports. Five-star talent. One-star injury luck.”

Eternal optimist and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll will tell you that luck is meant to be changed, that the five-star talent is still lurking within Ansah, waiting to be drawn back out. If the Seahawks can find a way to accomplish that, to keep Ansah healthy and replicate or even add to the mayhem that was vacated last month, then the Clark trade may be regarded as a touchstone event.

That deal with the Chiefs gave Seahawks general manager John Schneider the draft capital he manipulated to obtain more than double the number of picks with which he began. If the Seahawks click on a few impact players with those selections, it will have been well worth it. But not unless they find a way to fill the gaping pass-rush void that departed with Clark.

Enter Ansah. His back story is a compelling one. Ansah was born and raised in the West African nation of Ghana, where he played soccer and learned to love basketball on courts provided by the foundation of former NFL and BYU quarterback Steve Young. Eventually, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Ghana and earned an academic scholarship to BYU.

Ansah’s dream was to play basketball and star in the NBA, but twice he was cut from the squad at BYU after trying out. Instead, he walked on to the track team as an incongruous, hulky sprinter. A coach recommended he give football a try. Ansah had never played football and barely knew anything about the sport; all he knew came from watching a few BYU games from the stands. But coach Bronco Mendenhall gave him a shot.

The stories are legendary at BYU, about how Ansah went from having to be shown how to put on pads and barely surviving the rugged practices to becoming a defensive stalwart to being a first-round NFL draft pick, all in three years.

“He’s made the fastest ascent that I’ve ever heard of or seen or even believed was possible, in going from not having played the game to being a first-round draft pick,” Mendenhall told the Detroit Free Press.

Ansah was on path to stardom with the Lions until the reality of the NFL hit. There are some who will tell you that what he had – the burst, the finish, the indefinable nose for the ball carrier – is irretrievably lost. That once your body betrays you to that extent, you can never quite get it all back.

The Seahawks are betting on the opposite, that the same grit that allowed Ansah to master an unfamiliar game will lead him back to greatness. They’re betting on a little magic, which in May is always something worth dreaming over.

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