The Detroit Lions have less than a month. One month from today, the new league year begins, and with it, the frenzy that will be the team's first free-agency period under new head coach Matt Patricia.
Before that time comes, the Lions have to make a decision on their most high-profile pending free agent. Detroit has until March 6 to decide whether to use the franchise or transition tag on defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. If the Lions don't, he'll become a free agent one month from today.
The Lions have three realistic courses of action to take with Ansah. They could let him walk in free agency, see what his market is and then come back to him with an offer. They could try to sign him to a long-term deal now. Or they could use the franchise tag on the 2013 first-round pick, locking up his rights for one more season and giving Detroit a chance to work out a reasonable long-term contract if GM Bob Quinn and Patricia so choose. As of last week, Quinn said he had not discussed Ansah's future with Patricia.
The first two options are dangerous. Ansah will clearly have a market if he hits free agency, and though the Lions have a good amount of cap space available -- about $45 million -- other teams will have more. If one of those teams decides Ansah is priority No. 1, the Lions will likely be outbid. The long-term option is a difficult one for Detroit because Ansah has suffered so many injuries. Locking him in to a long-term deal, even one that is front-loaded with guarantees so the Lions could move on from Ansah later in the contract if it isn't working out, is a risk because his injury history would say that he is going to be hurt -- but likely play hurt -- at some point.
That's why using the franchise tag is the move that might make the most sense for Detroit. It keeps the Lions out of a long-term commitment to the 29-year-old who has dealt with injuries throughout his career, including ones that were limiting the past two seasons. Although the number will look high for the tag -- projections from various places have it at about $17 million for a defensive end (the real numbers won’t be known until the salary cap is set) -- the Lions have enough cap room to fit him in and sign other high-profile players.
The tag gives Ansah a platform to show next season that he's healthy and productive, and then Detroit can, in theory, try to negotiate a long-term deal.
It also boosts the pass rush, which is a big-time issue for Detroit. If Ansah stays healthy, he's one of the better pass-rushers in the league. But staying healthy has been the problem. Yes, Ansah had 12 sacks last season, with six coming in the last two games of the season when he was perhaps at his healthiest. But the 12 sacks are a misleading number because nine came in three games, and there were more games in 2017 when Ansah was close to invisible instead of a quarterback-wrecker.
For example, in one stretch last season, he went five of six games without a sack. Granted, he was on the injury report and still playing during all of those weeks, but he never had more than three tackles in any of those games.
A franchise tag for Ansah will also give Detroit a year to see if other ends -- notably Kerry Hyder and Anthony Zettel -- can improve on breakout seasons in 2016 (Hyder) and 2017 (Zettel). If they show that they can be reliable starters and pass-rushers instead of one-year flashes, that could make the decision about Ansah's future easier. And it could add depth to the pass-rush in 2018 during Patricia's first season.
There's also the likelihood that the Lions draft a pass-rusher early -- perhaps in the first round, where players such as Ohio State's Sam Hubbard, UTSA's Marcus Davenport and Boston College's Harold Landry could all be options. The Lions have staffers who coached Davenport (defensive line coach Bo Davis) and Landry (defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni) in college last season.
Considering that he is a defensive-minded coach, it's reasonable to think that Patricia's first draft will contain at least one potential high-impact defensive player, and the front four is where Detroit needs the most help.
Tagging Ansah could give that player a year to learn behind Ansah, who has by all accounts been a good teammate and willing to work with others to help them improve. Depending what Detroit does with another free agent, Haloti Ngata, this offseason, having Ansah's voice in the room could be a much-needed veteran presence.
Although "a voice" is low on the list of priorities when it comes to the Ansah decision, it could be looked at as a factor in keeping him around. That's something Detroit should do this offseason -- by committing to Ansah in the short-term with the potential for a long-term deal contingent on his getting through the season healthy and productive.