Growing up in Ghana, Ezekiel Ansah played soccer and basketball. In fact, he'd never even seen an American football game until he moved to the United States in 2008.
Five years later, he's on the verge of being a top 5 – or, at worst it appears, top 10 – pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. And while there is undoubtedly some risk in taking the supremely athletic but inexperienced Brigham Young defensive end, given the premium NFL teams put on edge rushers, his tantalizing potential as a field-tilting pass-rusher makes the risk worth it in the eyes of some.
"He's enjoyed as meteoric rise up the board as any other players in my 35 years covering the draft," said ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., who predicts Ansah will go second to Jacksonville, fifth to Detroit or eighth to Buffalo. "Anywhere between two, five and eight is where he could come off the board, which is amazing considering he was off the radar, completely undrafted when the season began – a guy undrafted when the season began, now all the way up clearly in the top 10, maybe even the top five."
One reason Ansah could wind up in Detroit is because of his fantastic Senior Bowl showing in January, when he was coached by Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz and the Lions' staff. After a strong week of practice opened scouts' eyes, Ansah was even better on game day, registering 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
"Part of that whole evaluation is how guys do at practice. You guys have seen the Senior Bowl. Everyone surrounds the field and analyzes every little thing. It's not a whole lot different than guys vertical jumping and running the 40 at the combine," Schwartz said. "I think the most important thing in football and scouting is how they play. He played well in the game. The thing that's most important and what you can't lose sight of is what the game day looks like, and he's done a good job and has put together some good game tape."
"Some guys have played football for a really long time. A guy like him, who's sort of new to the game coming in, from really a different background, it was interesting to see him grasp new concepts. It's one thing when you're out of school three or four years and can learn as you go, but to see him go and improve everyday and practice, have the game that he had, very productive game … he's obviously a guy that's talented physically, he went a long way to answer a lot of questions about his background and aptitude."
Because of his fantastic athleticism and seemingly limitless upside, Ansah has drawn comparisons to New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who's registered 27.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons after entering the league as the No. 15 overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Pierre-Paul had bounced around in college (winding up at University of South Florida after Fort Scott Community College and College of the Canyons) and was viewed as raw by scouts entering that draft, but he's panned out quite well for the Giants.
"I hate to compare players, but he is a long, tall, big athlete, probably a little bit raw. But you want to coach those kind of guys," said Giants general manager Jerry Reese, who drafted Pierre-Paul. "There are probably some similarities there."
The 6-foot-5, 271-pound Ansah and the 6-5, 278-pound Pierre-Paul do have some physical similarities, and their football paths are a lot alike, too. Pierre-Paul was born in Florida to Haitian immigrants, then played high-school football and was a one-year wonder at South Florida, playing 13 games for the Bulls with seven starts and registering 45 tackles (16.5 for losses), 6.5 sacks, one interception (returned 18 yards for a touchdown), three pass breakups, and two forced fumbles before declaring for the draft after his junior year.
Ansah, meanwhile, came to BYU on an academic scholarship and his first two years there, he tried out for the basketball team – and was cut. Finally in 2010 he went out for football, and last season as a senior, he had had 62 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
"I was really athletic. I didn't want to just sit around and go to school. I wanted to do something. Since basketball didn't work out, I wanted to do football," Ansah explained. "I never played the game so I didn't know much about it. That's why I tried basketball the first two years."
Ansah isn't the only defensive lineman who'll come with risk when the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft kicks off Thursday night. Florida State defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is uber-talented but has lapses in intensity, as many big guys do; his FSU teammate Bjoern Werner is raw like Ansah; and Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was diagnosed with a heart condition that raised concerns.
Still, teams will take the risks with the hope of finding difference-makers, both at end and tackle.
"You can probably never have enough," St, Louis Rams general manager Les Snead said. "Because if you're going to chase a quarterback around all day, the 300-plus pounders tend to get tired."
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Brigham Young (6-foot-5 1/4, 271 pounds, 4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Born in Ghana and came to BYU on an academic scholarship in 2008 before trying out for the football team in 2010. … Saw limited action (six games) in 2010 on special teams and as a defensive end and again in 2011 (12 games) on special teams and as an outside linebacker before bursting onto the scene last year as a senior, when he had 62 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. … Has terrific length, exceptional athletic ability and incredible speed but is a one-year wonder who is still learning the game.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida State (6-2 5/8, 297, 4.92): Played 13 games as a true freshman in 2010 before becoming a full-time starter in 2011 (46 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks) and 2012 (46 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks). … Showed good versatility playing along the line and has exhibited excellent explosiveness, athleticism and natural ability but must also prove he can play with the requisite intensity all the time.
3. Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah (6-2 3/4, 311 5.15): Broke through in 2011 with 33 tackles, nine tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks before starting 12 games at nose tackle last season and registering 42 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and five sacks with four pass breakups and three forced fumbles. … Was prevented from working out at the combine because of a heart condition but has been since cleared by doctors. … Powerful, potentially dominant player who could live up to his name and be a star if he is healthy.
4. Sheldon Richardson, DT, Missouri (6-2 1/2, 294, 4.88): Redshirted in 2010 because of a wrist injury and saw his first action in 2011 at Missouri, registering 37 tackles, eight tackles for loss and two sacks. … Underwent offseason shoulder surgery before 2012 season before putting up 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks as a junior last year. … Extremely athletic playmaker with who lacks great size but is incredibly gifted and could become dominant player at NFL level.
5. Bjoern Werner, DE, Florida State (6-3 1/4, 266, 4.83): Intriguing German immigrant who played only two years of high-school football in the United States before coming to Florida State. … Played as a true freshman in 2010, registering 20 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. … Became a starter in 2011 and had 37 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks, along with an interception and a forced fumble. … Had 42 tackles, 18 tackles for loss and 13 sacks last season as a junior. … High-effort player who has good instincts for being still somewhat raw.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Datone Jones, DE, UCLA; Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn; Cornellius Tank Carradine, DE, Florida State; John Jenkins, DT, Georgia; Kawann Short, DT, Purdue; Johnathan Hankins, DT, Ohio State; Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern State.
"The first question (teams ask) is explain why you're here, how did you come over here and that takes alone 10 minutes so I try to explain everything at a fast pace. And then when you have five interviews in a
row and you have to explain the same story (while) I'm forgetting all these key moments in my life. Just try and explain and see how passionate I am about this game. I made a lot of sacrifice. I left my country, my family, my girlfriend – she's my wife today – just to be here and pursue this dream. (In) sixth grade, there was a classmate who threw around the football and I just start throwing around with him and he saw I got some catching skills and he asked me to join his club team, the Berlin Adler, and I did, and I just fell in love with flag football at the time. But when you turn 15 you automatically advance to tackle football and it was just the most amazing feeling just hitting people. I just fell in the love with the game. I played a lot of Madden, that's how I got to know the NFL. It was just crazy. And then my head coach, Joerg Hoffman, said, ‘You have a lot of potential. You should try to go to high school and go through the whole American recruiting process with the goal to be here and get drafted.' I never looked back, it was just, ‘Pursue that dream.'" – Werner, on his path from Germany to the NFL Draft.
Position analysis: The Packers have invested plenty in the defensive line on general manager Ted Thompson's watch, and as he often points out, "The good Lord only made so many big guys." But the challenge is finding the right big guys, and that's not always easy. The jury's still out on last year's picks – second-rounder Jerel Worthy and fourth-rounder Mike Daniels – although 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal showed encouraging signs of life after two disappointing, injury-derailed seasons to start his NFL career. Thus, the position remains a need. B.J. Raji, the first of the team's two first-round picks in 2009, is entering the final year of his rookie contract, while veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, who first joined the team as an unrestricted free agent in 2006, is also in the final year of his deal. Set to turn 34 in October, it's reasonable to wonder how much more he has in the tank.
Neal's emergence was encouraging – playing just 323 snaps as situational pass rusher, he finished with 4.5 sacks, second only to Clay Matthews on the team, along with four QB hits and 17 hurries – as was Raji bouncing back from a subpar 2011. Worthy said at the Wisconsin Sports Awards that he expects to be ready for the start of the season despite suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the regular-season finale at Minnesota on Dec. 30. It'll be interesting to see whether the Packers, having inked Matthews to an extension and on the verge of an extension for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, will try to get a long-term deal done with Raji before season's end. He has the same agent as Matthews and Rodgers (David Dunn), which could expedite the process.
Draft strategy: It wouldn't be a surprise if the Packers used the 26th overall pick on a defensive lineman. It also wouldn't be surprising if he ended up being a disappointment. Since 1997, the team has taken 24 defensive linemen, and while Raji (No. 9 overall, 2009) and Vonnie Holliday (No. 19 overall, 1998) proved to be sound first-round selections, Jamal Reynolds (No. 10 overall, 2001) and Justin Harrell (No. 16 overall, 2007) were unmitigated disasters. For every Aaron Kampman (fifth round, No. 156 overall, 2002) hit, there have been high-pick misses, from Kenny Peterson (third round, 2003) to Donnell Washington (third round, 2004). Neal (second round, 2010) appears to be on the upswing, and Daniels' rookie year was encouraging. Still, expect Thompson to use at least one of his eight picks, if not two, on the line. The team expressed an interest in restricted free agent defensive tackle Steve McClendon, who re-upped with the Pittsburgh Steelers for three years after visiting Green Bay. That would indicate that the Packers know there's still a need there. Whether it's an early selection or a late-rounder, expect at least one new guy in the rotation.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.