Professional drafts often make clowns out of scouts and GMs as they take big gambles with high draft picks in search of talent that will blossom into game-changing performers. With the move to prime time Thursday night, the 2012 NFL draft took in 25.3 million viewers. The 2013 draft could exceed those numbers and shine an even greater spotlight on the decisions of teams in shaping their future teams.
At the same time as the draft has become a major television event, the introduction of rookie pay scales has totally changed the nature of the beast for ball clubs. The combination of greater spotlight and smaller salaries for the draft choices can have a variety of effects on teams' choices. It could encourage them to feel less pressure to find game changers with first round picks and take advantage of the affordable contracts to stock their teams with safe commodities...or it could empower teams to take chances on unproven talent without the risk of sinking tens of millions in guaranteed money on busts.
On the surface, Ezekiel Ansah comes across much like the latter kind of player. At the NFL Combine he presented raw, untapped potential measuring at 6'5, 270 pounds. In the tests, he managed to propel that massive form 34.5 inches straight up into the air and across 40 yards of field in only 4.63 seconds.
NFL scouts immediately compared him to Jason Pierre-Paul, who ran the 40 in 4.67 seconds at 6-4, 270. Pierre-Paul was plugged into the New York Giants pass-rush heavy DL in 2010 and has produced 27.5 sacks in three seasons, including 16.5 in their championship season in 2011.
The evolving nature of NFL passing offenses and the tremendous threat posed by teams with elite QB play make a defensive line that can get a consistent pass-rush extremely valuable to GMs. Both of the New York Giants' championships were achieved largely because they had a healthy and unblockable defensive line in their playoff runs, which ruined the advantages enjoyed by teams with great passing attacks, like Green Bay and New England.
So it would seem that Ezekiel Ansah could become the centerpiece of a ruinous defense that thwarts everything that NFL offenses are trying to accomplish by keeping players like Tom Brady scrambling for their lives rather than hitting receivers downfield. However, although his senior season came out of nowhere and shocked BYU's competition, his pass-rush numbers are not awe inspiring. He had 4.5 sacks on the season and 13 tackles for loss.
The nature of his career, having not played football before coming to college and having not actually dominated the field in college as a pass-rush DE, seems to point to Ansah's future in the NFL as being a boom or bust prospect. But when we examine what Ansah actually did in college, we find that his projection as Jason Pierre-Paul The Second is actually a limited vision for what he could become in the NFL.
Let's begin with his role in the BYU Cougars 41-17 blowout victory over Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech's offense is geared around running triple-option plays from the flexbone formation. The triple-option is designed to threaten a defensive front at multiple points. First, the quick-hitting dive up the gut by the fullback, then the potential for the QB to run up the seam or pitch it outside to a blazing speedster who can take the corner.
Against the triple-option, BYU primarily deployed Ansah in two ways. First, in a typical role as the strongside DE in a 3-4 scheme, he was asked to beat the offensive tackle's block and eliminate running creases up the middle while freeing up the linebackers to make plays.
One important feature of the Georgia Tech offense is the wide splits by the OL. Much like Mike Leach's Air Raid, Paul Johnson uses wide spacing to create big running creases up the gut. Leach does this to simplify pass protection and create throwing lanes, while Georgia Tech attacks the creases with fullback dives. Ansah is highlighted here for you as the strongside DE lined up across from the Right Tackle.
Georgia Tech's OL is using outside zone blocking here to run a classic triple-option play. The first read is up the middle of the A or B gap with the quick handoff to the fullback. The back to the top is looking to block for the pitch and the QB, if he doesn't give to the fullback, will cut inside the back's block or pitch outside to the back trailing him.
Already we see that the right tackle's attempt to reach Ansah and seal him inside is going terribly. Ansah immediately recognized the play design and has danced outside where the OT cannot reach him. At this point, his role is normally to squeeze the OT inside and close two gaps. To close the inside gap with the OT's own body smashed against the guard's body, and to fill the outside gap with Ansah's arms.
The OT releases inside of Ansah and looks to block the next level defender but Ansah's positioning and collision of his trajectory is going to make it impossible for the OT to reach the linebacker, no. 4, who is flying outside. Now, Ansah's 4.6 speed comes into play as the QB read the inside stunt by the BYU linebacker and is keeping the ball.
Ansah cuts off the QB's potential lane up the seam, both because he is well-positioned to out-leverage the play and because he's faster than the QB. The QB has to pitch now to a pitch man who has barely entered the play. The blocking back has a good angle on no. 5 but linebacker no. 4 has a clear path to the pitchman because Ansah didn't allow the OT to get the necessary angle to reach him.
The linebacker almost reaches the pitch at the same time as the back and easily makes the tackle for a four yard loss. This was all set up by Ansah handling the speed and wide splits of the Georgia Tech OL and having the strength to stand-up and shed the OT. On other plays in the game he was able to stand up the OT and shove him inside to eliminate the creases before tackling the fullback from behind with his quickness.
The other way that BYU deployed Ansah was on quick stunts to the inside.
Against the same formation, BYU is lined up in the same manner.
This time the outside linebacker is filling outside while Ansah cuts inside into the B gap. The right guard seems blissfully unaware that Ansah is coming inside and the OT's outside step means he has zero chance of even touching Ansah.
When the QB and the fullback make their first meshing point, Ansah is already almost to the ball. Due either to the success of the OL in driving back the nose tackle and middle linebacker, or the QB reading the outside linebacker's leverage to take away the QB and pitch man, the QB still hands off to the fullback.
Ansah immediately flattens the fullback behind the line of scrimmage before looking up to check the QB, almost as if to say "surely this poor fool didn't have the ball, did he?" I'm not sure if any offensive player took a worse or more humiliating beating than Georgia Tech's fullback at the hands of Ezekiel Ansah over the course of the game.
Against the more power-oriented run game of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Ansah finished with six tackles in a narrow 17-14 defeat that made people question whether Notre Dame had the offense to hang with college football's better teams. Of course, a big reason for the struggles of the Irish was dealing with a dominant but mostly still unheard-of defensive end.
Looking back now, Ansah's 4.5 sacks becomes far more understandable when you consider the role of his position against teams like Notre Dame where he frequently had jobs like this:
He's aligned heads-up against the Irish right tackle.
Notre Dame double teams Ansah with RG 57 and RT 74 with the goal of driving him off the line of scrimmage and creating a running lane for their back, no. 6 Theo Riddick.
When Riddick reaches the point where he needs to make his decision about where to cut on this zone play this is what he's confronted with: a wall of bodies. A massive pile-up caused by the fact that Ansah has not been moved backwards a single yard.
Somehow Riddick slipped through that mass of bodies without landing on his knee and emerged on other side against a shocked Cougar defense, but we can't blame this on Ansah, who stood up a double team.
Critics would love to point out the lack of tape in which Ansah beats NFL quality tackles for sacks but circumstances in BYU's 2012 season didn't really create such opportunities. BYU plays a 3-4 defense in which his role was as a DE who was expected to get low and dirty with the OL and free up linebackers to make plays. What's more, BYU's toughest opponents in 2012 were as follows: Utah (Ansah wasn't playing yet), Boise State (breakout game by Ansah), Oregon State, Notre Dame, and Georgia Tech.
Most of those teams are primarily known for running the ball, yet when we saw Ansah have the opportunity to utilize his speed and athleticism, he took full advantage.
Here against Boise St, Ansah reveals what is currently his best pass-rush move, the quick stunt inside.
BYU actually lines him up as NFL teams are eager to do: as a stand-up weakside pass rusher.
Boise State is running play-action and BYU is blitzing. The nickel back near the top of the screen is coming down on an outside blitz while Ansah stunts inside of the OT against the guard. The left tackle realizes what is happening and steps outside to meet the blitz but he is able to do little to help the guard block Ansah.
Ansah immediately drives the hapless guard backwards and is leveraged to get inside of him in a moment. By this point, Ansah has gone from the C-gap to the A-gap in almost an instant and is six yards deep into the backfield.
Boise's QB, Joe Southwick, realizes Ansah is too far inside but also nearly on top of him and spins outside to get away and buy time. But Ansah responds to the spin move and is in already in pursuit, the guard left behind to wonder at what has happened while attempting to regain his footing.
Southwick just barely gets the ball away before Ansah is driving him into the blue turf. Again, Ansah is faster than nearly all of the QBs in the NFL, and his quick feet and long strides often allow him to outmaneuver faster players in space as well.
NFL scouts see Ansah's lightning quick reflexes, his quick footwork, and his ability to cover ground and are eager to deploy him on the edge. However, watching his college tape you also see physicality against the run game, ability to navigate the trenches, and long arms which suggest another potential comparison: J.J. Watt.
The Houston Texans' 6-5, 295 pound defensive end dominated the league in 2012, with 20.5 sacks and 16 pass deflections. Ask any Big 12 defensive coordinator how to stop the quick passing games of spread offenses and they will emphasize to you the need to get an interior pass rush and hands up in the B-gap. J.J. Watt accomplished that for the Texans and dominated their competition. For a team that is willing to be inventive, Ansah could accomplish something similar. The team that drafts him could do all of the following:
1. Play him on the edge as a stand-up rusher. Much like San Francisco's Aldon Smith, Ansah could drop into short coverage, take the edge in the pass-rush or drive blockers into the QB, or stunt inside.
2. Play him inside as a 3-4 End or 3-tech D. He could stunt outside, beat guards heads-up with his pass-rush, and get his hands up to deflect passes if he can't reach the QB.
3. Play him at nose tackle in pass-rush situations. He can get a steady push inside with his strength or do unexpected things that normal nose tackles cannot accomplish like stunt outside or drop into coverage.
As with Tavon Austin, the mistake with Ansah would be to put him into a box, in this case thinking of him as the ideal 4-3 defensive end and failing to use him on other parts of the field. There aren't too many people in the world that are this big, this athletic, and this skilled at the traits that define great football players.
His long arms, power, quick reactions, and speed can make him a weapon all over the field. Just as BYU found a few different ways of using Ansah to destroy the Georgia Tech triple-option, inventive defensive coordinators should be able to find ways to use Ansah to destroy any number of different blocking schemes and play concepts.
Ezekiel Ansah's combination of pass-rush potential and run-stuffing tape should land him as one of the top 5 picks of the draft. Then it's up to the drafting team to convert all that talent into a weapon that will thwart any and all of what NFL offenses are trying to do.