Is 20 sacks a reachable number for Ezekiel Ansah? One coach thinks so

Ezekiel Ansah recorded 14.5 sacks last season, but the Lions believe he can improve on that number. Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It sounded implausible at first, like an unreachable goal for Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. But when you think about how far he’s advanced as a football player in his first three seasons and how much potential might still be there, it doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it might sound.

Twenty sacks is the number -- one floated by Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin last week. A 20-sack season for Ansah would crush his previous career high of 14.5, which he set during his Pro Bowl season in 2015.

So this, at least to Ansah’s coaches, is the goal.

“If you ask [Lions defensive line coach] Kris [Kocurek], it is 20 sacks,” Austin said. “I think he just has to continue to improve, just like we said the past couple years. Just continue to improve on his pass rush techniques, get better in the run game and he’ll continue to grow. He’s got a lot of room for growth still.”

Ansah’s rise to becoming one of the top pass-rushers in the NFL happened extraordinarily quickly after he was chosen with the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft. When he was drafted, he was a freakish athlete who picked up the game midway through his college career at BYU after trying out for basketball and running track.

He had never played the game before in his native Ghana, so he was relying mostly on instincts and the beginning of refining technique. But his progress at BYU, combined with his athleticism, showed the potential for something special.

“I met him right before I left two years before, and then when I met him again he was totally different,” former BYU teammate Bronson Kaufusi said at the NFL combine. “He was huge and, you know, had a good understanding of the game. I don’t think he knew too much about it when I left for the mission.

“Coming home and seeing him, I was like, ‘Wow, he changed a lot.’ It was fun to see him progress and playing well, even now.”

Kaufusi saw the beginnings of what everyone is seeing now. Back then, Ansah was starting to understand technique, responsibilities and the nuance that comes with playing the game for years. Every year in the NFL, that knowledge base has grown exponentially.

His athleticism awed his Lions teammates, especially as they saw him transition from an athlete playing football to a football player using his athleticism to become a consistent play-destructor on the field.

Even entering last season there were questions about Ansah -- mostly surrounding his growth and how he would handle more double-teams after Ndamukong Suh's departure to Miami. He responded with one of the best seasons a Detroit Lions defensive lineman has ever had, his first Pro Bowl nod and a place in the conversation among the best young defensive ends in the game.

So the 20-sack number for 2016? Austin said he “wouldn’t” be surprised if Ansah reached it.

If he does, it would also be one of the best sacking seasons in NFL history. Since sacks became an official stat, the 20-sack mark has only been reached 11 times by 10 different players. It was last done in 2014, by both Justin Houston (22 sacks) and J.J. Watt (20.5 sacks). Watt -- not Lawrence Taylor or Reggie White or Mark Gastineau or Derrick Thomas -- is the only player with two officially-recorded 20-sack seasons.

During his interview Thursday, Austin was asked who he might compare Ansah to. He didn’t want to go there. Based on where Ansah has come from, what Ansah has done so far -- and what he might be able to do in the future -- there might not be one at all.

“I’m not going to make a comparison to anybody,” Austin said. “I think he’s a fine football player in his own right. I don’t want to compare him to anybody.

“I’m going to let him set that bar.”