“It’s just amusing a little bit to me”, opines Yannick Ngakoue to Gridiron from the Jaguars locker room the day after being overlooked in the Pro Bowl voting, despite a season featuring 12.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 70 pressures and a league-leading six forced fumbles. “It’s just funny. You see guys in front of you that don’t even have the numbers and are getting picked on favouritism. I feel like I should have been there. I was snubbed. But it’s only adding more fuel to the fire. At the end of the day, y’all know it. If you know football, everybody knows.”
Yet everybody doesn’t know. Which is remarkable given what Ngakoue has been able to achieve in his first two years in the league: 21 sacks, 11 forced fumbles and an interception in just 34 games. He has become one of the most devastating edge rushers in football, a constant menace off the corner, in large part because of his motor and a relentlessness which makes him increasingly difficult to block. That and one of the best cross-chop moves you’ll see in all of football, one with the ability to render an offensive tackle useless.
Having beaten the third overall pick in the 2015 Draft, Dante Fowler Jr., out of a starting job, Ngakoue has developed into the unknown hit man of that Sacksonville front seven. But he is easy to overlook on a defense containing Calais Campbell, the NFL’s best cornerback tandem – Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye – and Malik Jackson, Myles Jack and Marcel Dareus.
It’s simple enough to understand why Ngakoue has flown so far under the radar. Despite registering 13-and-a-half sacks in his junior year at Maryland, he never generated a lot of hype in the run up to the 2016 NFL Draft. His Terps finished the season bottom of the ACC at 3–9, out of sight and out of mind for most college football fans.
Plus, at 6ft 2ins and 246lbs, he lacked prototypical size as a pass rusher and, like many raw college prospects, hadn’t yet developed a versatile repertoire of moves. And so he fell into the third round, going to Jacksonville with the 69th overall pick. It didn’t help either that, once he made it to the NFL, he was stuck on a perennially underachieving cellar dweller in the AFC South. He notched eight sacks in a promising rookie campaign, but who around the country was tuning in to watch a Jacksonville team stumble its way to three wins that year?
If you knew football, you would have been.
Someone who definitely knows football is Ngakoue’s former high-school head coach, Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, a legendary name in the District of Columbia prep ranks. Abdul-Rahim started the programme at Washington’s Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School and turned them into a national powerhouse. They won the 2012 state championship and Abdul-Rahim sent more than 100 players to Division 1 schools and beyond, including Chicago’s Eddie Goldman and Detroit’s Teez Tabor before joining up with Nick Saban and winning a National Championship at Alabama. “Yannick just kinda blew up,” he says. “He came out of nowhere really, but he turned into a terrific football player for us.”
Originally a middle linebacker at Friendship, the man named after the former French Grand Slam tennis champion Yannick Noah kicked outside, first to 3-4 outside linebacker, where he recorded 17 sacks as a senior, and then to stand-up defensive end with the Terrapins, who he chose over Florida State, Miami and South Carolina.
He entered the pro ranks bursting with a quiet confidence that belied his 21 years. “I always thought my whole life that I’d make it to the NFL,” he said at the combine, entirely seriously. “I just knew my work ethic and the way I approached the game was going to get me here.” And that confidence and commitment has shown up week in and week out in Jacksonville as he has developed quickly into one of the finest young players in football. So how has he done it? “First of all, it’s preparation man. I have a big chip on my shoulder. That chip…” His words tail off and he takes a deep sigh, as if pained by the notion of the slight he feels. “That chip is ridiculous because of where I came from.
“Being a third-round pick and seeing guys get drafted in front of me in the first couple of rounds who ain’t doing the things I’m doing just adds more fuel to the fire. I push me. I want to know how a third-round pick who fell because teams were worried about his size and his unrefined pass-rush moves could do what I’ve done in such a short space of time.”
But didn’t he find the transition difficult? Surely the step up from the basement of the ACC was hard, even for someone with Ngakoue’s certainty? “I wouldn’t say it was too tough. I came in on day one knowing I wanted to be the starter and that was my mindset. Look, my mentality was this: I don’t care who was here or where they got drafted because I came to take their job. I don’t care how long they played, that job’s mine. And I’m keeping it. Every single day I got out there like I’m the two; like I’m the second-string guy because it makes me work harder. It gives me the mentality to push myself. That’s my magic formula.”
It sounds arrogant. And perhaps it is. But when he talks, you listen. And you can tell that he believes every single word of it. “Oh he’s fearless,” says Abdul-Rahim. “He has that beastly work ethic that all the great ones have. But he also has the right mindset, and that’s critical.”
That mindset has already marked him out as something of a leader on that Jaguars defensive unit which has dominated the NFL in 2017. All this despite the presence of experienced players like Jackson, Paul Posluszny and Barry Church. And he’s not afraid to call out the veterans as he did with Campbell during the Week 5 beating of the Steelers at Heinz Field. Mic’d up for NFL Films, Ngakoue is shown screaming at Campbell before taking the three-time Pro Bowler to task on the sideline: “Tackle, tackle,” he screams before the snap. Then louder, “CALAIS MAN,” before clapping his hands repeatedly in frustration. “I need you to communicate to me,” he yells a split second before the snap. After the Steelers punt, he seeks out Campbell by the bench. “I need you to communicate to me. You have to look at me and say you’ve understood.”
If you didn’t know by now, this is no ordinary 22-year-old.
“He’s helped me elevate this season”, says Campbell in the locker room after that game. “People knock him for being a relentless effort guy like that’s a bad thing. Maybe he’s not quite as refined as Von [Miller] or those guys. But like Bruce Lee said, ‘I’d rather face a guy who practices 10,000 kicks once than a guy who practices one kick 10,000 times’. Yan, his cross chop, people know it’s coming and they still can’t stop it. He’s a hell of a player.”
And despite the screaming and the shouting, the feeling is mutual. “I learn a lot from him,” Ngakoue adds. “I sit next to him every single day in meetings. He’s like a big brother to me, a role model. We really critique each other’s games and both push each other each and every day, on and off the field. It’s a true blessing to have a guy like that on the team. A guy that I want to be like in a few years’ time.”
You get the impression from talking to him that Ngakoue probably never smiles. He is all business on our call, appearing much like his no-nonsense on-field persona. “Yan would take your lunch money,” says fellow second-year man Jack to ESPN. “He’s a full-time bully. And he doesn’t ever stop being a bully. And when he puts the helmet on, it’s magnified by 10 because he can get away with it. Left tackles, he’s a problem. I’m proud to have him on my team. He’s a great competitor. I love having 91 rushing the passer on third and long. I love it. If Yan is fighting a grizzly bear, help the grizzly bear.”
So who does Ngakoue model his game on? Before I can finish the question, he is interrupting me. “I used to watch a lot of rush ends but not anymore because they my competition,” he says aggressively. Did he watch anyone, we ask? “Yeah, Jason Taylor, Simeon Rice, those types of players,” he says. “But no-one from the new era. My competition,” he reiterates.
“Listen, to me I know what I can do at the end of the day,” Ngakoue says before going to prepare for the Week 16 game against the San Francisco 49ers. “I don’t need no other grown man to tell me what I can do. I know I’m a baller. I’m a physical player. I can get to the quarterback. I strip quarterbacks, and that’s what I do. Being a team player is going to help this team win and get us further. That’s all that matters. Whether you see me or you don’t, that’s all that matters. And believe me man, in three years’ time I’m gonna be leading the NFL in sacks. I’m looking forward to that.”
“Most underrated player in the NFL” tweets his teammate, linebacker Matt Overton after Ngakoue’s finished terrorising Pittsburgh again, this time in the divisional round of the playoffs, to the tune of another strip-sack that was returned for a touchdown by Telvin Smith.
Overton knows football. And so does Ngakoue.
And now, so do you.
This article originally appeared in Issue XXXVII of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE