PROVO — High risk, high reward. Cinderella story. Raw athlete. One-year wonder. Big upside.
All of those labels have been tattooed — in a figurative sense, of course — on BYU defensive end Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah.
That's no surprise, considering the native of Ghana has played football for only three years and has just nine collegiate starts on his resume.
But that hasn't deterred National Football League observers from extolling Ansah's natural ability, limitless ceiling and untapped potential.
The NFL draft begins Thursday (6 p.m. MDT, ESPN/NFL Network) in New York City, and many draft experts project Ansah as an early first-round pick.
ESPN's Mel Kiper, Jr., has Ansah going No. 2 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. ESPN's Todd McShay projects that the 6-foot-5, 271-pounder will be taken by the Detroit Lions at No. 5.
Both Kiper, Jr., and McShay had plenty of positive things to say about Ansah during a round-table discussion on ESPN's SportsCenter last week.
"In my 35 years, I've never seen a player go from completely off the radar entirely to the first round — let alone top 10 — the way Ezekiel Ansah has," Kiper, Jr., said. "It's never happened before, in my opinion."
Bill Polian, who served as the vice chairman of the Indianapolis Colts from 1998-2011, and now works as an ESPN analyst, said Ansah has a bright future despite a glaring lack of experience.
"In the space of about six weeks (last fall), without ever having played the game before at the highest level, he learned how to defeat a double team," Polian said. "It takes people years to do that. He's a natural athlete. It would take a lot of courage to make this pick. You're going to be criticized, but, to me, this is a guy that has it all. Here's the most important thing: Cinderella is going to break the glass slipper to smithereens. This is a tough, physical, ferocious guy."
Ansah has drawn comparisons to New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the son of Haitian immigrants. While Ansah knew next-to-nothing about football before trying out at BYU in 2010, Pierre-Paul did play in high school before stints at two junior colleges and the University of South Florida. Pierre-Paul was drafted in the first round (15th overall) of the 2010 NFL draft.
"Jason Pierre-Paul was a guy a few years ago that had this unbelievable upside, but he wasn't as raw as Ziggy," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said during a teleconference last week. "Ziggy's really raw."
In his second season in the NFL, in 2011, Pierre-Paul recorded a team-high 16.5 sacks, was selected to his first Pro Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro.
Polian took the comparison a step further. He said Ansah's physical talent reminded him of former Buffalo Bills defensive lineman, and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bruce Smith, the league's all-time quarterback sack leader.
"(Ansah is) more physical than Jason (Pierre-Paul)," Polian said. "This is a little bit of a Bruce Smith comparison, physically. He has the ability to transfer speed into power like that. That’s the rarest commodity to find."
If McShay is right and Ansah gets picked by Detroit at No. 5, the BYU defensive end will be going to a team that owns a checkered draft history. The Lions have been burned by first-round picks that didn't pan out, like Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams, over the last decade.
Will the Lions take a chance on Ansah at No. 5?
"You want guys with that high ceiling, but it’s also important to make sure you’re getting a solid player that you can have around for a long time," Lions General Manager Martin Mayhew told the Detroit Free Press. "It may not be the best place to swing for the fence."
Because of Ansah's lack of playing time in college, even hard-core NFL observers hadn't even heard of him until last season.
"I think it's the best story of the draft," Mayock said of Ansah. "A year ago he was not even on NFL teams' draft boards. Now we're talking about him as a top-10 selection who's played minimal snaps. It scares me and it scares teams how little he's played."
Some of those fears were allayed by Ansah's jaw-dropping performance in the Senior Bowl in January. Ansah seemed to be in on almost every defensive play and was named the game's MVP. Then he wowed scouts and NFL executives at the NFL combine in February.
"He is a top-10 pick and what makes him that is his athletic ability and obviously his size and length," director of college scouting for the New Orleans Saints, Rick Reiprish, said during BYU's Pro Day in late March. "He has a big upside. He doesn't even know how good he can be with the limited amount of time that he's played football at this level. When he gets it, he's going to be a good player."
Some questions have surfaced in recent weeks about Ansah's age. Several teams requested a copy of Ansah's passport to verify that he will turn 24 on May 29. That only seemed to add to the mystery surrounding him.
No matter where Ansah is drafted, he will still need to prove what he can do on the field. Some contend that Ansah is overrated, and that he could be a bust in the NFL. That's a risk that NFL teams are weighing right now.
"I would always ask our staff, 'If this player is going to fail, tell me why he will fail,'" Polian said. "When you look at Ziggy Ansah, is he going to fail because he doesn't have physical tools? No. Is he going to fail because he's not mentally tough? No. He made it in a new land all by himself. Is he going to fail because he's not intelligent? No. He's a statistics major. Is he going to fail because he doesn't have experience playing the game? Maybe. But you can teach that. All of the other things are red flags that will cause someone to fail."
Polian is confident that Ansah will make an NFL team very happy for years to come.
"He's not going to fail because of those things," he said. "He's going to succeed. The likelihood of his success is pretty darn good."
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