If you were asked about the 2020 free-agent class — and more specifically about the pass rushers available this offseason — the conversation would probably start with Jadeveon Clowney.
It's understandable, given that Clowney is a former No. 1 overall selection and has steadily established himself as a disruptive force on all three downs and against both the run and the pass. But what if I told you that Clowney isn't the best pure pass rusher available this offseason and wasn't even close?
That distinction belongs to Jacksonville Jaguars‘ Yannick Ngakoue, whose 37 1/2 sacks since entering the NFL rank as the 12th best mark in the entire league since 2016. Of course, we know that raw sack totals don't paint a very vivid picture and can serve as a misleading sample size for a player's ability to generate pressure.
But it’s what makes Ngakoue's 85 quarterback hits over the same timeframe all that much more impressive as only seven NFL defenders have topped that number over the same timeframe. Among them?
- Aaron Donald, 123 QB hits (52 sacks)
- Chandler Jones, 98 QB hits (60 sacks)
- Calais Campbell, 98 QB hits (39 1/2 sacks)
- Cameron Jordan, 97 QB hits (48 sacks)
- Von Miller, 93 QB hits (46 sacks)
- Carlos Dunlap, 89 QB hits (32 1/2 sacks)
- Michael Bennett, 88 QB hits (29 sacks)
That's it. Only Donald, Jones, Campbell, Jordan and Miller have better sack and hit totals than Ngakoue since the former Maryland Terrapin entered the league as a third-round draft selection (69th overall). That group boasts 16 Pro Bowls and nine All-Pro honors combined over the last four seasons. Ngakoue? A single Pro Bowl appearance back in 2017.
For my money, you can take Clowney — if there's a premier pass rusher primed for the market, it's Ngakoue.
WHERE HE WINS
Where do we start? Ngakoue, at 6-foot-2 and 252 pounds, pairs short-area explosiveness with natural leverage to threaten pass protectors with his slew of rush counters. He has many tools in his toolbox to make for a tough assignment in one-on-one pass protection. Ngakoue has the ability to play in a wide-nine alignment and speed rush past tackles or simultaneously convert that speed to power if he senses his blocker has overset or is bailing out to compensate for the speed.
Tack on some savvy rush counters: His best one is his cross chop but Ngakoue also packs an effective club and the needed body control to diminish his surface area and slip past punches with finesse as well.
Translation: He can beat you with speed, power, finesse and technique.
But don't mistake all this sack production for just a pass rush specialist, because Ngakoue is absolutely a three-down player. He's played 75 percent of the Jaguars' defensive snaps in each of the last three seasons — including a career-high 80 percent in 2019 despite missing a game.
With 42 tackles for loss (19th in the NFL since 2016) and 14 forced fumbles (fourth in the NFL since 2016), there's little questioning Ngakoue's vast array of impacts on the game through four seasons. And the best part? He's only now entering his physical prime.
Ngakoue will turn 25 years old on March 31 and should still remain in his physical peak throughout the duration of his entire second contract, barring injury. With just two games missed over the last four seasons, durability is, to this point, a non-factor in gauging Ngakoue's value on the open market.
POTENTIAL RED FLAGS
There is very little in the way of red tape with Ngakoue. Some may point to his ability to fit in certain schemes, but if your defense can't accommodate Ngakoue's prowess in some capacity, you've got bigger problems on your hands. Some NFL decision-makers may be put off by Ngakoue's transparency regarding his contract situation down the final stretch of his rookie deal — he was fairly outspoken regarding his worth and frustration that he had regarding the lack of a new deal.
NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported over the summer that Jacksonville offered Ngakoue a short-term deal with an annual average salary in excess of $19 million. Ngakoue and his party turned it down.
But then again, can you really blame him? Why would Ngakoue, as potent of a pass rusher as you'll find in the NFL outside of Donald, Miller, Jones, Jordan and Campbell over the last four seasons, want to sign a short-term contract just to find himself in contract discussions again in 2022 as a 28-year old, where teams can use the leverage of "physical decline" against him in a long-term deal that would be ending by the time he's 32 or 33 years old?
Campbell's deal was signed at the age of 31 — he's getting $15 million per year on average over four years (and is a prime trade or cut candidate for Jacksonville this year entering the final year of the deal). Jordan's latest extension was signed at 30 years old — he got $17.5 million over three seasons. Miller's deal was signed at 27 years old and averages over $19 million per season. The younger you can get the long-term deal done, the better it is for the player. So debunk the debate on whether Ngakoue is "selfish" to play "the game" in contract negotiations. He's absolutely not.
Now that it’s established that Ngakoue is confirmed good, the question now becomes where will he land? That's a complicated question, because that Jaguars may ultimately block his avenue to open negotiations by hitting him with the franchise tag.
Ngakoue seems fairly content to move on from the Jaguars' organization, but Jacksonville could force his hand by pegging him with the tag — a move that would cost Jacksonville somewhere around $18 million against their 2020 salary cap at the start of the league calendar, which is $20 million more than they currently have in allotted cap space.
Remember how Campbell was a prime cut or trade candidate? Jacksonville could craft $15 million in cap space by moving Campbell off the roster and another $20 million by declining defensive tackle Marcell Dareus' 2020 club option. The money is there, and the Jaguars would be foolish to let Ngakoue walk out the door — even if they're planning on moving on from Ngakoue for good this offseason.
Why? Because we all saw what the Seattle Seahawks landed for Frank Clark last year in a tag and trade scenario. The Kansas City Chiefs flipped their 2019 first-round selection, 2020 second-round selection and swapped 2019 third-round selections to acquire Clark on the franchise tag just a year ago — which the Chiefs parlayed into a five-year contract extension for Clark worth up to $105.5 million.
And a Lombardi Trophy.
So Ngakoue's market value is likely to be more than just a projected $18-20 million annual average salary — it's also probably going to cost some premiere draft capital.
POTENTIAL LANDING SPOTS
The Jaguars can make this work if they want to. With Tom Coughlin out of the picture, perhaps Ngakoue will be more receptive to rekindling his relationship with the team and would readily sign a long-term extension. If this happens, Ngakoue is set in Jacksonville, given the team will want to protect this valuable asset from hitting the open market and only getting a compensatory pick back when it is all said and done, which would be a fringe top-100 pick.
If Jacksonville hypothetically tags Ngakoue but the budding star has decided he's not interested in playing for Jacksonville anymore, the bidding war is on. Which NFL teams might be able to check the following boxes:
- A young contender with a well-developed roster
- Paying a quarterback on a rookie contract
- An aggressive general manager related to the NFL draft
- Ample cap space
- A team picking low enough in the draft order that Ngakoue would be worth flipping for
Enter the Buffalo Bills, an upstart 10-6 football team in 2019 that has a ferocious defense, over $83 million in 2020 cap space, a general manager in Brandon Beane that has aggressively traded up the draft board several times in his three seasons in western New York and has quarterback Josh Allen on a rookie contract.
Oh, right, and this team picks 22nd. Name a pass rusher in this year's draft that will still be on the board at No. 22 that can help the Bills defense this season as they try to get over the hump in the postseason during their current winning window?
You can't. An added bonus? Buffalo lost linebacker Lorenzo Alexander to retirement and is potentially losing defensive end Shaq Lawson to free agency this offseason.
All of that criteria filled by the Bills? The Indianapolis Colts fill most of it, too — although the team isn't paying a quarterback on a rookie contract (they will be soon enough) and they're picking No. 13 in the draft order. But the Colts do have Nos. 34 and 44 in this year's draft order. Perhaps the team could peg one of those selections and push off the rest of their picks to swap into the 2021 draft?
This would be a bit out of character for general manager Chris Ballard, who typically hoards draft selections. But at some point, you've got to spend them. The Colts have the capital and cash ($86 million in 2020 cap space) to make it happen if the Jaguars are agreeable to get the first-round pick in 2021.
Did someone say aggressive general managers?
By God, that's Howie Roseman's music! Roseman is one of the NFL's most ambitious general managers — wheeling and dealing left and right and bending the salary cap to his will.
The Philadelphia Eagles' primary needs this offseason? An upgrade at wide receiver stands out the most. This year's draft is stocked to the brim with gifted route runners. You don't have to get one in the first round. The Eagles were connected to the Clowney rumors back in the summer — although after Clowney's tough hit on Carson Wentz in the postseason that ship may have sailed. But Ngakoue is an even better fit in Philadelphia's wide-nine defense under Jim Schwartz.
He'd be a star in Philadelphia and boost the Eagles' pass rush, further freeing up Fletcher Cox and 2017 first-round selection Derek Barnett to get after the passer. The Eagles are somewhat backed into a corner with their cap for the time being — there aren't a lot of attractive cut candidates that would save the Eagles from equal dead cap hits.
But with $46-plus million in projected 2020 cap space, there's enough here to make this work.