The truth is, all NFL draft picks are made on potential. A player picked in the top 10 has the potential to be an instant starter and integral part of the team for years to come — at least, that’s how the team selecting him feels.
A guy who’s taken later, in the fourth or fifth round, well, teams might believe they have the potential to be a solid backup or spot starter.
Or, as has been noted numerous times: if New England (or any other NFL team) had known Tom Brady’s potential, would he really have lasted to the 199th pick?
But there’s potential, and then there is Brigham Young’s Ziggy Ansah, a top-15 draft pick who began playing football almost on a whim just three years ago.
Ansah is an athletic freak — part LeBron James, part Usain Bolt, and, if NFL talent evaluators/soothsayers are correct, large parts Jason Pierre-Paul. He is 6 feet 5½ inches, 271 pounds, grew up dunking on opponents in his native Ghana, and as recently as a couple of years ago was clocked at 10.91 seconds in the 100 meters.
Born and raised in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Ezekiel Ansah ended up in Provo, Utah, after the Mormon missionary who baptized him suggested he come to the United States to attend BYU and try out for the basketball team.
Basketball was Ansah’s first love, though he also had played soccer nearly from the time he’d been able to walk.
But twice Ansah didn’t make the cut in basketball, so he walked on to the track team, where his size dwarfed other runners.
In 2010, track coach Leonard Myles-Mills introduced Ansah to Paul Tidwell, an assistant on BYU’s football team.
In his first days with the squad, Ansah wasn’t even sure how to put on his shoulders pads. He had watched some games since he started attending BYU, but he knew nothing of how to play, fundamentals, techniques.
“I was really athletic. I didn’t want to just sit around and go to school,” Ansah said when asked why he tried out for football. “I wanted to do something. Since basketball didn’t work out, I wanted to do football.”
Ansah picked things up quick enough to play in six games his first season. The next year, however, he didn’t play much more than that, and recorded just seven tackles.
He remained a situational player last fall — until BYU’s nose guard, Eathyn Manumaleuna suffered an injury in the fourth game of the season. Over the next nine games, Ansah started and collected a team-high 13 tackles for losses and 4.5 sacks.
He garnered an invitation to the Senior Bowl, and that’s when his stock began to rise.
“They played him a lot inside [at BYU], he played really, really hard, he’s really strong, but you didn’t see a lot of production because he was out of position,” said Daniel Jeremiah, a former NFL player and current NFL Network analyst. “The thing that got him really rolling was he went to the Senior Bowl.
“In the game itself they kicked him out to end and they used that wide-nine scheme in Detroit [the Lions coaching staff led the South squad], and they kicked him out really, really far, outside the tackle, he didn’t have to overthink things. It was just kind of a ‘see-and-go’ position and he totally dominated the Senior Bowl. He dominated the game from a defensive standpoint that I don’t know that I’ve seen in eight years.
“I think people in the league said, ‘OK, we finally saw him where he belongs.’ And that’s when the train really left the station and people got excited about him.”
Ansah knows he has a long way to go.
“In comparison to other people that are out there and I have been playing only a few years, I still have a lot to do just to catch up to them,” said Ansah, who said he was told at the Combine he might play outsider linebacker in a 3-4 defense. “I’m going to be dedicated and do everything I can just to be the best player.
“I want to be the best player at this position, even with the little experience I have. That’s the challenge that I have.”
Another challenge: overcoming the idea that he might not eat, sleep, and drink the game like so many who have played for a decade or more.
“He’s done all the right things leading up to this point, to put himself in the position of being a top-10 pick, top-15 pick, and certifiably he should be that because he’s got that type of talent,” an AFC scout said. “But it’s risky in the sense that you’ve got to be really comfortable in knowing this kid’s all about football, all about getting better and seeing what makes him tick. He’s got the athletic ability, it’s all the other stuff, if he wants to be great.”
Ansah worked to get onto the field for the Cougars, but as special of an athlete as he is, being big and fast alone isn’t going to cut it in the NFL.
“The question for me is the want-to, the passion,” the scout continued. “Because it’s going to be a lot tougher.
“ It’s not going to be as easy as it was for him at BYU, he’s not going to be able to just get by on pure athleticism; he’s going to have to know the nuances of the game, the fundamentals, and personally if I was a GM and I was in that position and I was thinking about drafting him, those are going to be my main concerns, not just his football ability or his athleticism, it’s what drives him, what motivates him, what’s inside his head.”
At the Combine, Ansah acknowledged there are plenty of folks who don’t believe in the potential, that he might be a flash in the pan.
“I like the challenge [of football] a lot,” he said. “I know most of you are here to talk to me, but then again there’s people who have doubts about me and that’s what I love; I just want to prove you wrong.”