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Why the Lions tagged Ezekiel Ansah despite his injury history

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Ezekiel Ansah led the Lions in sacks last year, and they couldn’t afford to let him go to another team in free agency. So on Tuesday, they slapped the franchise tag on Ansah, the team announced.

The Lions picked Ansah fifth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Since then, he’s been an inconsistent producer, mainly because of injuries.

The Lions haven’t used the franchise tag since they applied it to Cliff Avril back in 2012. It will cost them dearly with Ansah, with the number for defensive ends is projected to be around $17.4 million this year.

Here’s what the franchise tag means for Ansah and the Lions.

Why the Lions used the franchise tag on Ansah

Ansah has led the Lions in sacks in three of his five seasons in the NFL. A high ankle sprain limited his effectiveness in 2016, when he managed just two sacks despite playing in 13 games. In 2014, his 7.5 sacks were just one fewer than the team leader’s, Ndamukong Suh.

But he had 12 sacks this past season despite being on the injury report for 13 of the team’s 16 games. His 14.5 sacks during the 2015 season were also a team best, as were the eight he totaled in his rookie year.

He hasn’t been the most consistent pass rusher, but he’s still been far and away the best one on the Lions’ roster. Ansah is too important to the future of the Lions defense — especially the pass rush — to let him walk.

The Lions get another year to evaluate Ansah

When Ansah is healthy, he is the key to the Lions’ pass rush. But Detroit may not want to go all in with a big-money long-term deal because of Ansah’s injury history. The tag gives them a chance to figure out Ansah’s future with the team.

If you just take Ansah’s numbers from last season at face value, he was No. 8 in the league last year. But that’s a little misleading. Nine of those 12 sacks came over three games — Week 2 against the Giants, Week 16 against the Bengals, and Week 17 against the Packers.

The tag for a defensive end is expensive, and if the Lions do decide to go ahead and secure Ansah’s future in Detroit long-term, they have until July 16 to make that happen.

But based on his injury history and the way it’s impacted his play, it makes sense if Detroit decides to wait and see for one more season before deciding whether to keep him around beyond 2018.

The Lions don’t have an immediate replacement on the roster

Detroit has a few other priorities this offseason. The Lions had the absolute worst run game in the league last year and will look to add a running back. They also need a center to protect Matthew Stafford, who has the second-highest quarterback salary in the league, with Travis Swanson set to hit free agency. That makes it harder to prioritize

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