Yannick Ngakoue got right to the point Monday.
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ star defensive end took to Twitter to announce he’s ready for a new NFL home.
“The Jaguars are aware I no longer have interest in signing a long-term contract in Jacksonville. Duval, I love you and gave you guys everything I got. I’m thankful for the journey and look forward to continuing my career elsewhere,” Ngakoue wrote.
If only it were that easy.
Just minutes after Ngakoue’s post, a report from ESPN said that the Jaguars plan to use the franchise tag on Ngakoue.
Jacksonville General Manager Dave Caldwell, a St. Francis High School graduate, hinted at the tag being an option during his news conference last week at the NFL scouting combine.
“There’s still a process that needs to be played, but I think you guys know how we feel about him and we want him here,” Caldwell said. “We’re going to try to get him here and keep here one way or another.”
Enter the franchise tag. Although it comes with a price that’s expected to be about $19.3 million in 2020, using it guarantees the Jaguars will either have Ngakoue for one more season or control his departure via trade.
A third-round pick in 2016, he skipped most of spring practices and the Jaguars’ mandatory minicamp last year in hopes of landing a long-term contract, but negotiations ultimately broke down. Ngakoue reportedly was seeking a contract that paid him $22 million per season, while the Jaguars’ offer was in the range of $19 million annually.
Ngakoue ranks third in franchise history with 37.5 sacks in four years. He has 14 forced fumbles in that time, which is fourth in the NFL. He finished with a career-best 41 tackles, eight sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 2019.
With Ngakoue making it clear he doesn’t intend to stay with the Jaguars long term, speculation about his future has increased. Naturally, given the Bills' need at the position, fans have openly campaigned for their team to swing a deal. Would that make sense for Buffalo? Let’s weigh the pros and cons:
Durability: Ngakoue has missed just one game in his four-year career, starting 62 of 63 games.
Age: He turns 25 on March 31, so his best football is still to come.
Production: Ngakoue has had at least eight sacks in each of his four seasons. He has 85 quarterback hits and 42 tackles for loss. He’s scored two defensive touchdowns (one on an interception return and one on a fumble return). In three playoff games, he has one sack, three quarterback hits and one forced fumble. He led the NFL with six forced fumbles in 2017, earning his first Pro Bowl selection. He’s the only player in the NFL over the past 10 seasons to post at least 37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in his first 63 career games. Of Ngakoue’s 37.5 sacks, 12 have been strip sacks.
Confidence: Ngakoue isn't lacking. Here’s what he told former News sportswriter Tyler Dunne for a 2018 article in Bleacher Report: “Not enough people know that No. 91 for the Jaguars is the top edge rusher in this league. I am the best. I am the best pass rusher in the league. I’m No. 1 at what I do. Definitely.”
Cap space: The Bills have plenty of it. With more than $82 million in projected cap space, Bills General Manager Brandon Beane would be able to afford the type of contract it would take to sign Ngakoue.
Positional need: It’s been well-established that defensive end is a concern for the Bills, in the short and long term. Shaq Lawson is an impending free agent. Trent Murphy is heading into the last year of his contract. Jerry Hughes is coming off a down season statistically and had offseason wrist and groin surgeries. The Bills’ only developmental pass rusher is 2019 seventh-round draft pick Darryl Johnson Jr., but his playing time went in the wrong direction as a rookie. Defensive end is arguably the biggest positional need on the roster.
Cost in dollars: If Ngakoue were to get $22 million per season, he would be just the sixth defensive player in the NFL to reach that threshold. Even with the Bills' available cap space, it’s debatable if Beane is ready to make that type of commitment to any player. The Bills are going to need cap space to extend contracts of their own players, starting with cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebacker Matt Milano and left tackle Dion Dawkins. Down the road, they might have to do deals with quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. They also might have an interest in re-signing some of their own impending unrestricted free agents, starting with Lawson. While he might not be in Ngakoue’s class as a pass rusher, the Bills know what they have in Lawson. He fits in their locker room and is coming off the best season of his career. He’ll also be a fraction of the cost.
Cost to acquire: If the Jaguars tag Ngakoue with the intention of trading him, we have a pretty good idea of what it will cost. Last year, the Seahawks traded Frank Clark, for whom they had used the franchise tag, to the Chiefs for a first-round pick in 2019, a second-round pick in 2020 and a swap of third-rounders in 2019. After the deal, the Chiefs signed Clark to a five-year contract worth up to $105.5 million, with $63.5 million in guarantees.
The Chiefs had previously used their franchise tag on pass rusher Dee Ford before trading him to the San Francisco 49ers for a 2020 second-round draft pick. The 49ers then gave Ford a five-year contract worth up to $87.5 million.
If the Jaguars trade Ngakoue, it’s a good bet they’ll want to do so before the draft. The Texans used their franchise tag on Jadeveon Clowney last year, but waited until after the draft to trade him. The return from the Seahawks – a third-round draft pick, pass rusher Barkevious Mingo and defensive end/linebacker Jacob Martin – was less than what the Seahawks and Chiefs got in their deals.
While it’s hard to say exactly what the trade cost would be for Ngakoue, his 37.5 sacks in four seasons are 2.5 more than the 35 that Clark had in his first four seasons with the Seahawks. Would Beane be willing to move his first-round pick for Ngakoue?
Run defense: Ngakoue isn’t the biggest defensive end at 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds. He missed eight tackles last season in run defense, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. His run defense grade of 51.8 ranked 258th in the NFL, according to PFF, and his tackling grade ranked 288th. Of course, the Bills or any other team acquiring Ngakoue would be paying him first and foremost to rush the passer.
A “down” 2019: Even in that regard, though, there is a concern. Ngakoue finished with 50 quarterback pressures (sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback hurries) in 2019, according to PFF, a total that ranked tied for 35th. He had 64 pressures in 2018, which tied for 13th, and 70 in 2017, which tied for 12th. Any team interested in acquiring Ngakoue will have to decide if they agree with PFF’s grading, and if so, determine what led to the dip in production.
On paper, Ngakoue looks to be the perfect fit given his age and production and the Bills’ positional need. However, he represents the kind of home run swing Beane seemed to say he wasn’t ready to take when he mentioned how the Bills aren’t just “one player away” during his season-ending news conference. While there is a lot to like about how Ngakoue gets after the pass rusher – which Beane called one of the “premium positions” at last week’s combine – the cost involved to bring him in will be high.
If the Bills want to continue building through the draft and re-signing their own, it seems unlikely that they would trade the type of premium capital needed to acquire him. In our view, a move is unlikely, but not entirely out of the question.