Ezekiel Ansah among NFL's top international players
In honor of the Olympics—and the heightened interest in international competition and camaraderie that comes with the games—the PFF team took a shot at identifying the NFL’s top international players.
The league is far from stacked with imports, but there are a number of quality performers scouted from outside the United States. Kickers are well represented on the list, including the likes of Brazil’s Cairo Santos, South Africa’s Gary Anderson, and Australia’s Brad Wing. Aside from the kickers, a number of defensive lineman with non-U.S. heritage have made an impact in pro football. A handful of pass-rushers, in particular, have thrived.
Below are the top current international players, in terms of production.
Tamba Hali, OLB, Chiefs
Liberia has a couple of entrants in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, both competing in track and field events. The small West African nation has never won a medal, though Hali’s impact in the NFL has been very impressive to date. Hali moved to the U.S. during childhood, offering enough time for him to learn the intricacies of the game, and has developed into an outstanding player. Throughout his career, he’s graded amongst the top players at outside linebacker. In 2010, he surpassed his peers with a league-leading pass-rush grade. Hali earned a new contract this offseason after ranking ninth overall amongst edge defenders in 2015. He registered seven sacks, 10 hits, and 55 pressures this past season, reconfirming his status as one off the NFL’s best.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, Lions
Ansah may not be quite as dominant as recent hype levels would indicate, but that’s hardly a surprise considering his inexperience. Unlike Hali, Ansah never had the benefit of learning the skill of football during his teenage years. He was selected fifth overall based more on his athleticism and size than productivity. Ghana has a strong list of sporting successes, and Ansah looks like the next in line. Inconsistency is holding him back, but he should continue to improve as he learns the subtleties of the game. Ansah had plenty of positive performances in 2015, but ranked only 25th overall amongst edge defenders. He also failed to crack the top 20 in pure pass-rushing grade, earning a mark of 81.9. Despite his relatively recent introduction to the game, Ansah has an impressive 33 sacks, 46 hits, and 92 pressures in his first 1,246 NFL snaps. A good pass-rusher at this stage, there are plenty of reasons to expect Ansah to make the necessary adjustments to become one of the NFL’s top defenders.
Cairo Santos, K, Chiefs
While Brazil’s athletes compete for gold in front of their home fans at the 2016 Olympics, Carlos Santos is using his soccer skills for another cause. Growing up near São Paulo, he was not introduced to American football until he moved to the United States as a foreign exchange student. Santos improved dramatically in his second NFL season, moving all the way up from 26th overall amongst field-goal kickers to ninth in 2015 (in terms of overall grade). He connected on 83.3 percent of field goals, missing just three from within 40 yards. The former undrafted free agent also dramatically improved on kickoffs. Doubling his touchback percentage from less than a quarter to over a half, Santos has demonstrated the all-around game required of an NFL place-kicker. His return percentage fell from 66.7 percent to 46.5 between his two pro seasons, and opponents’ average start position fell from the 23.1 yard line to the 20.8. Santos is starting to look like a steal, especially with the investment some franchises have made in the position recently.
Jeremiah Attaochu, OLB, Chargers
Attaochu also has a full football education, having moved to the U.S. during his youth. He was sufficiently impressive at Georgia Tech to be selected in the second round of the 2014 draft. Forced to remain patient as a rookie, Attaochu earned a shot as a full-time starter this season. In 688 snaps opposite Melvin Ingram, he graded positively in every facet of play. His diverse skill-set complements Ingram’s, allowing him to focus on getting to the quarterback. To be fair, Attaochu can hold his own in that regard, managing seven sacks, nine hits, and 32 pressures when given the opportunity. Overall he managed a 78.5 grade in 2015. In addition, Attaochu is one of the stouter outside linebackers in the league at the point of attack. He lived in the backfield last season, earning a total of 36 combined stops, bettered only by Khalil Mack and Olivier Vernon (including all edge defenders). Attaochu also ranked third amongst outside linebackers with an 11.0 run-stop percentage. With Ingram, Attaochu, and Joey Bosa (eventually), the Chargers’ front-seven is looking better than it has for years.