The Lions placed the franchise tag on Ansah, which will be an estimated $17.5 million, before they left for the NFL Scouting Combine this week, but general manager Bob Quinn declined to say how aggressive the team will be in pursuing a long-term deal with its top pass rusher.
Ansah had a team-high 12 sacks for the Lions last season, but was limited by back and knee injuries much of the year. Nine of his sacks came in three games, including six in the season's final two weeks.
In 2016, Ansah struggled through ankle injuries all season and had just two sacks.
"He's had some injuries, no question," Quinn said at the Combine. "But when you look over his career, he hasn't missed all that many games. One thing about Ziggy is he's extremely tough. When he can practice, he practices, when he can play, he can play. And I have a great deal of respect for his work. All the behind-the-scenes things that you guys don't see, in terms of him trying to get his body right, whether it was his ankles in 2016, to this year with the knee and a couple other things that popped up. He works extremely hard behind the scenes to get ready for Sundays. I have a great deal of respect for that."
Ansah has proven to be one of the top pass rushers in the NFL when healthy -- he had 14.5 sacks in 2015 -- and his return gives new head coach Matt Patricia a key piece to build his defense around.
The Lions have questions along the rest of their defensive line, with Haloti Ngata headed for free agency and Kerry Hyder trying to return from a torn Achilles tendon, and Quinn said Wednesday that he's counting on unproven cornerbacks Teez Tabor and Jamal Agnew to play bigger roles in their second NFL seasons.
"Ziggy, he's an outstanding player," Patricia said. "Obviously had a chance to meet with him, so that was great and we're going to try to do everything we can to put him in great positions to be productive and help us win."
With Ansah back in the fold, the Lions can focus on addressing several other areas of need in free agency. If they don't bring Ngata back, they will need a big defensive tackle to pair with A'Shawn Robinson. They could re-sign one or more of their own free-agent defensive backs (Tavon Wilson, Nevin Lawson, DJ Hayden). And they need an offensive lineman to replace center Travis Swanson, though they have options with left guard Graham Glasgow capable of playing center.
As for Ansah, Quinn said he believes the soon-to-be 29-year-old is capable of being a high-level player again.
"He played well down the stretch," Quinn said. "The thing about Ziggy that I think really needs to be kind of put out there, when you really watch the tape, like, the offensive lines slide to him all the time. So you go back and watch this guy, there's two guys trying to block him I'd say more than half the plays. So we talk about production, alright, there's production on paper, this stat line, his sacks, his hurries, all that stuff, that's great. But when I watch tape and the coaches watch tape, is he doing his job? Is he occupying two blockers and Anthony Zettel's making a play? Or Kerry Hyder? Or A'Shawn [Robinson], or whoever? So, I think that's part of the stuff that when you really dive into and watch it, I thought he had a productive year."
Neither second-round pick Teez Tabor nor fifth-rounder Jamal Agnew saw much time on defense last season, but Quinn said both players are ready for expanded roles in 2018.
In fact, Quinn said "there's probably a pretty good chance they are internal" solutions to the Lions' pending holes in the secondary. Cornerbacks Nevin Lawson and DJ Hayden and safety Tavon Wilson will be unrestricted free agents.
"We drafted those guys for a reason last year and when we evaluated them in the postseason process, we like what they did in their roles," Quinn said. "Jamal didn't really get out defensively too much because we had a lot of depth at nickel. I think Jamal can probably handle some of those roles, but he has to have a really good offseason. He has to come in and learn a new defense, so that's going to be a transition for him. And then Teez had a solid rookie year. We started him off slow on purpose to kind of get his feet wet a little bit before we threw him out there. And the more he played down the stretch, I think the better he played."