INDIANAPOLIS -- At the end of December, with the Detroit Lions already out of the playoffs and heading toward an eventual coaching change, Ezekiel Ansah stood in front of his locker and had a brief conversation with the media.
Many of the questions focused on his future: His contract, the franchise tag and his health. They were relevant then and remain critical now, even though Ansah is tied to the Lions following the team using the $17.143 million franchise tag on him to keep him in Detroit in 2018.
But his future, his health and his contract remain issues that will follow him for the next 12 months. So, too, will be how he's used in Detroit under new head coach Matt Patricia.
With the tag on Ansah, the focus shifts to a potential long-term deal and whether that makes sense for the franchise and for the 28-year-old defensive end, who has been dynamic when healthy and sometimes invisible when not at full strength.
That questionable consistency is one of the many reasons why a long-term deal with Ansah just wouldn't make sense. A long-term deal for Ansah would tie him up for what could be considered the prime of his career, but it does not seem like a long-term deal is a lock to get done for multiple reasons.
The first is money -- Ansah would likely want to be paid like one of the top defensive ends in the NFL, yet his injury history would be a good cause for concern in locking him up for that long.
Last week, general manager Bob Quinn wouldn't say much about how much the Lions really want Ansah for the long-term, considering his answer when asked about it.
"Had a good conversation with Ziggy about what the future entails," Quinn said. "All those conversations between me and the player are going to be private. We're not going to get into talking about it with you guys.
"But we did talk to him, told him what our plan was and he understands where we're coming from. We understand where he's coming from and we're looking forward to having him on the team."
Quinn acknowledged Ansah's injury history and listed things like "personality, intelligence, durability" among the characteristics they use in evaluating signing a player to a long-term deal. Particularly a long-term deal that will be massively expensive.
All Detroit needs to do is look to its recent past with a long-term deal turning into an injury mess -- linebacker DeAndre Levy. Some of that was bad timing, of course, but Levy seemed healthy at the time of his extension. Ansah has been hurt for the majority of the last two seasons.
There's also the number that would come into play. Ansah would likely want to be paid in the $16-18 million range per year. That's the same range as some of the best pass-rushers in the game -- Olivier Vernon, J.J. Watt, Justin Houston, Chandler Jones and pass-rushing outside linebacker Melvin Ingram. Only Von Miller, who is arguably the game's best defender, is in a different class at the moment with a $19 million per year average.
What would be interesting is if the Lions decided they wanted to try to lock up Ansah long term. Take a look at a contract structure of similar types of players: Ingram and Vernon. Ingram signed a four-year deal, averaging $16 million per year with $42 million guaranteed (including $34 million fully guaranteed). Vernon's five-year deal has an average of $17 million per year with $52.5 million guaranteed (with $40 million fully guaranteed). Would either one of those deals be enough for Ansah -- maybe with a little bump up for inflation on the cap? Would they work for the Lions? Tough to say.
It's not clear the Lions would even want to do that type of deal, but it's a structure to look at.
Ansah's real future in Detroit depends more on the money, though.
If Detroit decides it wants to build the front seven of its defense around Ansah, getting the long-term deal done makes sense. Patricia still needs to figure that out. While Ansah is a really good player, he hasn't shown the versatility that could make him more attractive. For the most part, save for specific instances under ex-coordinator Teryl Austin, Ansah has been a defensive end, not a defensive end/linebacker hybrid.
Could he learn? Sure. But for now, expect that Ansah will remain as a defensive end instead of a hybrid player even though his athleticism could allow him to be that multiple-type of player.
Then there's the last part -- the injuries. While Ansah doesn't have the beat-up body of years playing football like many of his colleagues, there are definitely concerns about how well he'll hold up as he gets older.
In the last two years, he's dealt with ankle, knee, shoulder and back injuries. More often than not, he has practiced on a limited basis instead of fully during weeks of the season. Going back to his rookie year in 2013, he's had ankle and shoulder injuries pop up almost every season.
When you're potentially paying a player the No. 2 salary on your team -- because that's what Ansah will likely command in a long-term deal -- that's something to be weighed.
And it's also why it would be surprising -- at this point -- to see Detroit sign Ansah to a long-term deal. Yes, potentially waiting a year could be dangerous if Ansah stays healthy and produces at a Pro Bowl-or-better level in 2018. But that's something the Lions could live with -- because the other option would hurt building Detroit's depth and team as a whole if Ansah were to sign and not pan out.