INDIANAPOLIS — It was the move the Detroit Lions had to make. With a suspect defensive line devoid of pass-rushers and the team’s top option, Ezekiel Ansah, a couple weeks away from becoming a free agent, the Lions needed to find a way to keep him around.
When he’s healthy, Ansah is worth all of the $17 million-plus he’ll earn with the franchise tag this year, as evidenced by his 12 sacks for the 2017 season, including six in the last two games. When he’s not healthy — and that has been the issue since his breakout 2015 season — he’s still a good player, but not a defense-transforming one.
And the Lions, with a defensive line that needs remaking, need to have at least one dominant player in the defensive front.
Keeping Ansah for at least 2018 — and there’s always a chance a long-term deal gets worked out — gives first-year coach Matt Patricia some cover on his defensive front.
Patricia did well without a star in his defensive front in New England, but with Detroit’s unit learning a new system and a potential star player still on the roster, the Lions would have made a mistake by letting Ansah go.
Using the franchise tag is the right move because of Ansah’s injury issues. While he has played in 13 or more games every season of his career, he hasn’t appeared in all 16 since the 2015 season, when he had 14.5 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. The 28-year-old has also played hurt many, many times in his career, and a long-term deal would be a concern because it’s tough to predict what his health will be two or three years from now.
Ansah acknowledged last season he had played through a lot in 2017. He also felt like he could return to his old form. When pressed, he wouldn’t give specifics why he felt that way, but that’s what the Lions are hoping for in 2018.
Locking up Ansah shouldn’t change Detroit’s plan, either. The Lions still need help on the defensive line, specifically their pass rush. If a player such as Marcus Davenport or Harold Landry is available at No. 20 in April’s draft, Detroit should strongly consider taking one of those players.
Those players, like Ansah, have a chance to be stars. And right now, the Lions have Ansah and a couple of decent complementary pieces rushing the passer in Anthony Zettel and Kerry Hyder, who is coming off an Achilles injury.
Franchising Ansah became even more vital when evaluating other pass-rushers available. There were not many, if any, pass-rushers available on the free-agent market who have the talent level of Ansah.
Demarcus Lawrence was the most comparable player who could hit free agency, but Dallas is expected to find a way to keep its top pass-rusher. The market after Lawrence and Ansah dipped dramatically with no obvious replacements available.
So Detroit couldn’t do what it did last year, when offensive linemen Riley Reiff and Larry Warford left in free agency. The Lions had plans to replace both of them, giving big money to Rick Wagner and T.J. Lang to try to shore up the offensive line.
While those moves didn’t entirely pan out — Lang dealt with injuries most of the year and Wagner got hurt, too — they were comparable replacements, if not upgrades, to the players the Lions let go.
With Ansah, those options just weren’t there, which is why Detroit’s decision to place the franchise tag on the defensive end was the right move — and really the only sensible move — the Lions could have made.
New Orleans Saints activate WR Tre’Quan Smith off injured reserve
METAIRIE, La. — The New Orleans Saints‘ receiving corps keeps getting healthier by the week.
Third-year receiver Tre’Quan Smith was activated off of injured reserve Saturday — a day before the Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a divisional-round playoff game — after fellow receivers Michael Thomas and Deonte Harris returned from IR last week. Smith missed the past three games with an ankle injury before returning to practice this week.
Smith caught a career-high 34 passes for 448 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games this season. But the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder is equally valuable as one of New Orleans’ best downfield blockers in the run game.
The Saints also placed backup guard/center Will Clapp on the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday after he learned of a positive test and missed practice on Friday. No other players were placed on the list Saturday after contract tracing.
The Saints elevated guard/center Cameron Tom and linebacker Chase Hansen from their practice squad to the active roster. They also re-signed emergency backup kicker Blair Walsh and long-snapper John Denney to their practice squad and released wide receiver Tommylee Lewis and defensive end Anthony Zettel.
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Pittsburgh Steelers expected to promote Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, source says
PITTSBURGH — The Steelers didn’t have to search far for their new offensive coordinator.
The team is expected to promote quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, a source confirmed to ESPN.
Known for his creativity in playcalling and design, Canada has been the Steelers’ quarterbacks coach for just one season, but he has plenty of experience on the collegiate level.
With Canada running the Panthers’ offense in 2016, Pitt led the nation in red zone touchdown percentage (82%) and scored at least 28 points in all 12 regular-season games.
He also previously worked with Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner at NC State, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois.
Canada had been a candidate for the Miami Dolphins‘ offensive coordinator opening. NFL Network first reported that the Steelers were turning to Canada to lead the offense.
Canada’s return could signal that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is returning for the 2021 season because the veteran would be familiar with the offense and coaching style — important factors in the final years of his career.
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