It took a lot, but Yannick Ngakoue finally escaped Jacksonville. The last cornerstone of the Jaguars’ defensive dynasty (2016-2017) has fallen.
Ngakoue was traded early Sunday morning to the Minnesota Vikings after months of vacillating speculation that had only recently picked back up in the midst of an unprecedented August of NFL transactions. The Vikings packaged conditional picks and restructured Ngakoue’s deal to make it all work, but the disgruntled EDGE has found a new home, and the Vikings have added yet another defensive stud to a loaded depth chart.
But it’s not what Ngakoue might do for Minnesota that is interesting. It’s how he got here.
When Ngakoue came out in the 2016 NFL Draft, he was lost in the logjam behind a talented top tier that included such names as Noah Spence, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Leonard Floyd (and Joey Bosa, of course). Ngakoue ended up being the 10th EDGE selected, taken in the early third round by Jacksonville to compete for their starting rush linebacker spot in the Gus Bradley defense.
Despite his record-setting final season with the Terps, in which he posted the 13.5 sacks that still stand atop the single-season leaderboard, Ngakoue was not considered an early-round prospect despite his technical refinement and clear production at a young age. Indeed, Ngakoue’s 2015 campaign came when he was just 20 years old, and he was a 21-year-old rookie with two years of productive starting experience under his belt. There were questions about his athletic ability translating, as Ngakoue was a smaller EDGE (6’2 with 31 ½” arms and a below-average 3-cone and short shuttle) whose get-off in college ran hot and cold.
In Jacksonville, Ngakoue dialed in on his jump and learned how to time snaps, and subsequently exploded in his early seasons. With a highly-competitive jump profile (34 ½” vert, 9’10 broad), the linear explosiveness was always there for Ngakoue, and with better technique and cleaner jumps, production translated. Ngakoue posted 8.5 sacks in his age-21 season, the fourth-highest number in league history for a 21-year-old rookie, behind Shawne Merriman, Carlos Dunlap, and Bosa.
But none of those players above him were drafted as late as Ngakoue. To get that much production out of such a young profile usually warrants the pick that secured Bosa, two full rounds before Ngakoue was selected. Only three EDGEs in NFL history drafted in the third round or later have posted at least six sacks in their age-21 rookie season: Ngakoue, Aaron Lynch, and Ngakoue’s new teammate Danielle Hunter.
When Hunter came out in the 2015 NFL Draft, he was lost in the logjam behind a talented top tier that included such names as Dante Fowler Jr., Vic Beasley, and Shane Ray. Hunter ended up being the 13th EDGE off the board and a late third-round pick, a developmental project for Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer behind starting EDGEs Everson Griffen and Brian Robison.
Hunter’s pre-draft process and profile were decisively different from Ngakoue. There were no athletic questions with Hunter, who brought the length, 10-yard burst, and three-cone drill that Ngakoue’s performance had lacked. But everything about Hunter’s profile was athleticism, not production. His get-off wasn’t regularly present on LSU film, as he frequently had run responsibilities in that defense, and accordingly, he only had 1.5 sacks in his final season despite producing 13 TFLs. Despite flashing the same speed-to-power rushes with which Ngakoue would later terrorize the Big Ten with, Hunter lacked the technical instincts and slippery savvy of an NFL-ready pass-rusher.
In Minnesota, Hunter got dialed in on his pass-rush, namely turning his elite athletic ability into a more reliable get-off and outside pass-rush path. He transitioned from being a starting run defender at LSU to a pass-rush specialist almost immediately, posting six sacks on only 418 snaps in his rookie year. By his second season, Hunter tallied 12.5 sacks and took over the starting job that he holds today. And Ngakoue? He joins Hunter as the only two players drafted outside of the first round in league history to tally at least 12 sacks in an age-22 or younger season.
While they looked fairly different as prospects, Hunter and Ngakoue have not only followed similar career paths, but also trended toward each other. Hunter has increasingly become a technician with each year of his career that passes, now rushing all lanes and angles with the array of moves that made Ngakoue such a productive rookie. Ngakoue still isn’t the athlete or the edge rusher that Hunter is, but it was the unlocking of his explosiveness and cornering ability that turned him from a solid technician into an all-around threat on the outside arc.
Ngakoue’s production has tailed off as of late—a sensation embedded somewhere in the tangled mass of cause and effects that sprouted the dissent between Ngakoue and the Jaguars, from whom he has finally gotten his trade request. Hunter has solidified himself as a reliable elite EDGE with back-to-back 14.5 sack seasons—and with Hunter rushing off the opposite corner, Ngakoue is playing with the best true EDGE of his career. There’s going to be space for him to eat like never before, and an accompanying bump in his production should be expected.
So Minnesota not only found their Griffen replacement, but upgraded on him, and in the process, reminded us of a core tenet of draft philosophy: youth matters. Sometimes we overemphasize youth—behind Ngakoue and Hunter are a crowd of middle-round youngsters who never panned out at all, or at least didn’t pan out as early—but it is a critical part of the profile. Hunter’s all-athlete profile as a pass-rusher was less daunting when you remembered that he was entering the league at 21; the same alleviation was offered of Ngakoue’s profile, who leaped multiple tiers of EDGE play by just getting quality coaching on his get-off for the first time in his young career.
Both had warranted reasons for falling into the third round, and picks that assume development are always gambles, but Minnesota has 82 sacks over nine seasons of experience in their EDGE room now, and neither player is a day over 26. When these players hit, they are massive advantages in terms of contract management and projected career longevity at the value of their selection. Two of the most successful swings at the fences are now in Minnesota, and their EDGE room is as dangerous, both short- and long-term, as any in the NFL.
- Dec 08, 2022
- Dec 08, 2022