That is the daunting question revolving around BYU defensive lineman Ezekial "Ziggy" Ansah. In so many ways, Ansah is the latest version of Jason Pierre-Paul, a tall, fast and uber-athletic defensive end who didn't have much experience with the game. The difference is that Ansah not only has even less football experience than Pierre-Paul, but also Ansah has less experience with this country as a native of Ghana.
"It is crazy, to go from where I was a year ago to how much people are paying attention to me," Ansah said in his slightly halting English that reverberates through his kettle-drum voice. Ansah is viewed much like Pierre-Paul in 2010, a mid-first-round pick (Pierre, from South Florida, went No. 15 overall to the New York Giants) with high upside and lots of risk.
To hear Senior Bowl executive director and former longtime NFL scout and executive Phil Savage talk about Ansah, the top 10 appears to be a sure thing heading into the NFL scouting combine, which starts this week in Indianapolis.
"I'm thinking that maybe even the top five with the way that teams are so desperate to adjust what they're doing for all these read-option quarterbacks," said Savage, who watched Ansah take over the Senior Bowl last month as if he were already a level better than the competition. "You're going to need guys on the defensive line who can chase those guys down. Ansah is that guy."
Ansah finished the Senior Bowl with seven tackles, including 3 ½ for losses (1 ½ were sacks), and forced a fumble from Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. Savage and many other observers said he was clearly the best player in the game.
Ansah is the NFL's version of a runway model. At 6-foot-5, 274 pounds and a wingspan of nearly seven feet, he runs like a track athlete. That's what Ansah did before finding his way to the gridiron. In fact, Ansah did lots of things before getting to football. There was soccer in Ghana. There was basketball, a sport he loved as he watched his older brother, Elias, play. Ziggy even dreamed of playing at the NBA level after he converted to Mormonism and came to the United States five years ago.
As much as some people like the idea of getting the next Pierre-Paul or even a guy like Stephen Neal, a guard with New England who never played in college but played eight seasons in the NFL before retiring after the 2010 season, the success rate for players with non-traditional football backgrounds is questionable.
Perhaps the best example – or worst, depending upon your perspective – is former New York Jets defensive end Vernon Gholston, who had to be talked into playing football in high school, just like Pierre-Paul. Gholston, who also is exceptionally bright, ended up at Ohio State and became an even more successful college pass rusher than either Pierre-Paul or Ansah.
Gholston went No. 6 in the 2008 draft to the Jets. In three years with the Jets, Gholston never recorded a sack and was cut. In each of the past two years, he was with a team in training camp but didn't last past August.
Or there is Jets offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse, who moved to the United States from Haiti when he was 14, started playing football in high school and played at the University of Massachusetts before being a second-round pick in 2010. Ducasse has started one game in three years with the Jets, and what little playing time he has received has been shrouded in mild controversy. In November, Jets offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, who was fired earlier this month, indicated that he was being forced to play Ducasse on roughly 25 percent of the snaps.
With players such as Gholston and Ducasse, small things can have large ripple effects because of their lack of experience.
One former Jets employee said that Gholston's confidence was shot in his very first game. Gholston, who was under pressure to fulfill a five-year, $32.5 million contract that included $21 million guaranteed, missed a sack of Miami quarterback Chad Pennington, who had recently left the Jets.
"I just remember that play so vividly and how he seemed to think about that play over and over again," the former Jets employee said. "He wasn't a guy with a lot of confidence, and I think that with the pressure of the contract and the New York media on him, he just went into a shell."
For Ducasse, the 2011 NFL lockout deprived him of vital learning time with the coaching staff. When Ducasse came back to the team after the lockout, it was almost as if he were starting over again as a rookie, the former employee said.