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The Best Defender You’ve Never Heard of Could Push the Jaguars Defense Over the Top

Yannick Ngakoue isn’t the biggest name on a star-studded Jacksonville defense, but the second-year pass rusher is a fumble-forcing machine—and could wreak havoc come January

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’ve never heard of Jaguars pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue, you’re probably not alone. For everyone living outside Florida and Maryland, it’s been easy enough to overlook the guy playing on the same defense as larger-than-life defensive lineman Calais Campbell, trash-talking shutdown corner Jalen Ramsey, and big-money standouts A.J. Bouye, Malik Jackson, and Marcell Dareus. Even former college stars like Myles Jack and Dante Fowler Jr. and promising linebacker Telvin Smith probably have more nationwide name recognition. But Ngakoue’s inching closer to household-name status: The former Terrapin quietly has emerged as one of the league’s most dangerous edge rushers, tied for sixth in the NFL in sacks this year (11) — just a half-sack short of Chargers superstar Joey Bosa — and he’s about to play a huge role in the 9–4 Jaguars’ run to the postseason.

It’s easy enough to understand why Ngakoue’s flown so far under the radar. Despite racking up 13.0 sacks in his junior year at Maryland, he never generated a ton of hype in the run-up to the 2016 draft, as his team finished just 3–9, out of sight and out of mind for most college football fans. At 6-foot-2 and 246 pounds, he lacked prototypical size as a pass rusher, and like many raw college prospects, hadn’t yet developed a versatile repertoire of pass-rush moves. He fell into the third round of the draft, 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 Jaguars franchise that was a perennially underachieving cellar-dweller in the AFC South. Ngakoue 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?

What the 22-year-old Ngakoue lacks in an arsenal of fine-tuned pass-rush techniques, he makes up for in athleticism, strength, and effort. One knock on his college game was that some of his production came on extended plays or coverage sacks, and that’s happened some in the pros, too — but on a defensive front like the Jaguars, where pressure can come from any angle via Campbell, Jackson, Fowler, and others, Ngakoue’s nonstop motor and willingness to play to the whistle can be a huge advantage. On one play against the Cardinals, he was initially pushed past the pocket by right tackle Jared Veldheer, but he stuck with his rush and worked his way back downfield. As Blaine Gabbert tried to escape to the right, Ngakoue crashed into him from behind, dislodging the football — which Campbell scooped up and returned for a score.

That strip sack wasn’t just luck. Ngakoue has produced a league-high six forced fumbles this year to push his career total to 10. That’s the most ever for a player 22 years old or younger, and for the Jacksonville defense, simply getting sacks isn’t enough — the Jaguars want to put the football on the ground every time they line up to rush the passer.

“Yeah, it’s nice to get a sack,” said Ngakoue earlier this year. “It’s cool. But the great ones get the ball out, and that’s what I’m trying to do. … It’s all about keying the ball, and it’s all about capitalizing on what the offensive tackle gives you.”

In Week 1, Texans left tackle Chris Clark lunged too early and gave Ngakoue an opening on the outside, and the Jags’ budding star took advantage. He shot past Clark and threw a swipe at Tom Savage’s arm as the quarterback cocked back to throw. That jarred the ball loose, and Fowler was there to pick it up and run it back for a touchdown.

The other thing that shows up on that forced-fumble play is the explosiveness Ngakoue displays in his first few steps. There are more than a few times this season when he has gotten past an offensive tackle’s shoulder with a technique that almost resembles a track-and-field triple jump. A stutter step and a sharp jab step inside precede a jump cut outside before he dips his shoulder to get under the block to get to the quarterback. We saw that in Week 11 against the Browns, when he got past Spencer Drango for a strip sack (Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer recovered it).

Ngakoue did the same thing to Drango late in the game, again forcing a Kizer fumble, and this time it was recovered for a touchdown, the game-winning score.

The Jaguars utilize Ngakoue’s athleticism in a number of ways. Instead of always rushing him to the edge, they’ll run a stunt, where he slices back underneath a teammate and runs up the middle to get pressure on the quarterback. The sight of the unblocked Jaguars pass rusher coming up the middle has been enough to force ill-advised or off-target throws from opposing quarterbacks on a number of occasions this year.

While Ngakoue’s gotten more than a few of his sacks from pure explosiveness and nonstop effort, he has nearly perfected one signature move: the cross chop. Rushing off the edge, he first strikes the offensive tackle’s arms down with his inside hand before using his outside hand to chop at his opponent’s outside shoulder to get around that tackle’s hips. It looks like this:

Ngakoue may still have a limited repertoire and could stand to develop a couple of counter-moves to pair with the deadly cross chop to really unlock his potential, but it’s tough to argue with the results so far. As Campbell put it, “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.”

Going back to the start of 2016, Ngakoue has notched 19 sacks — only one player from his draft class (Bosa, with 22) has more — and for some perspective on the type of potential he’s shown, that’s the fifth most for any player 22 years old or younger since the league started tracking the stat in 1993. He may have been an unheralded third-rounder out of a relatively small program, but the Jaguars’ promising young pass rusher has out-produced big-name players from that class like DeForest Buckner, Leonard Floyd, Shaq Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah, Kevin Dodd, and Noah Spence. Per Pro Football Focus, the second-year pro has put together a 12.6 Pass Rush Productivity score (a stat that measures pressure per pass-rush play), tied with Raiders star Khalil Mack for eighth among all edge players who have participated in 50 percent of their team’s defensive snaps. He’s racked up 58 total pressures on the year, tied with Seahawks standout Michael Bennett for ninth-most league-wide.

Ngakoue may never be the face of the Jaguars defense — not with so many big-ticket free-agent stars and an outspoken spotlight-grabber in Ramsey — but as the Jags look to secure their first playoff berth since 2007 and make some noise in the postseason, the pressure he’s going to bring from the edge will be a crucial part of the team’s winning formula. And if he keeps doing what he’s done all year — or, even better, produces yet another strip sack that leads to a touchdown, this time in a Jags playoff game in January — the country just might learn his name.