Batted ball specialist, Canadian DL Eli Ankou finding niche in Browns’ training camp

Photo courtesy: Matt Starkey/Cleveland Browns

Eli Ankou’s NFL journey has been a winding one.

Three years, three teams and only 20 games played.

The Ottawa native has spent it all battling on the fringes of rosters and this year was to be no different, but while the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the rest of the world to its knees, Ankou was given a chance to shine.

Ankou was poached off the Jacksonville Jaguars practice roster by Cleveland in 2019 and his seven tackles in nine games with limited reps as a run defender were enough to earn him a training camp berth. In a regular year, Ankou would have almost certainly been on the chopping block, however, the coronavirus caused a rash of changes in the NFL and veteran free agent signing Andrew Billings opted out of the 2020 season. That left a 328-pound hole for a run-stuffing nose tackle in the defensive line rotation.

Listed at six-foot-three and 325-pounds, Ankou is at least 20 pounds heavier than any other player on the Browns roster, which meant he immediately got first crack at Billings’ role. Most outside the team thought a free agent would be brought in to replace him, but with a week left in camp, Ankou has remained and he’s made the most of his opportunity.

On Friday, the UCLA product was named one of the eight most impressive performers in Browns’ training camp by Browns Wire reporter Jeff Risdon, listed alongside established NFL stars like Odell Beckham Jr., Kareem Hunt and Austin Hooper. One thing has set Ankou apart in the eyes of those who frequently view Browns’ practice, a natural ability to get his hands into passing lanes.

After Ankou deflected a Baker Mayfield pass up in the air for an interception on Thursday, the Browns’ in-house host Nathan Zegura marvelled aloud over the live-stream broadcast.

“How many times have we said, ‘pass batted down by No. 91?,'” he asked.

Apparently, it’s been an awful lot and Zegura elaborated on Ankou’s camp performance in his practice recap.

“He has done an excellent job taking on double teams and has shown a knack for batting balls down at the line of scrimmage,” he wrote. “Kiffin even raved about his athleticism and movement skills for a man that size.”

A player who once seemed a roster long-shot appears to have carved himself a niche in Cleveland. While Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi will start for the Browns along the interior, with top rookie Jordan Elliott used heavily in rotation, Ankou appears to be the one tasked with doing the dirty work and two-gapping on the inside. It may be the fourth man on the depth chart, but it means another year of NFL employment for the 26-year old.

Should Ankou keep his momentum going another week and make the roster, it will be a proud moment for Ottawa football fans, although one that might be bittersweet in the long term. A year of NFL success will keep Ankou another season further from returning home and suiting up for the Ottawa Redblacks, who drafted him in the third round of the 2017 CFL Draft.

Still, Ottawa has established itself as a growing producer of top football talent and those in the city might will have Sunday, October 4, circled on their calendars. That’s the day that Cleveland travels to Dallas and, if all goes according to plan, both defensive lines will feature Ottawa-born anchors in the form of Ankou and Cowboys’ rookie Neville Gallimore.

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.