To bolster a defensive line that looked like a shadow of its former self throughout training camp, the Minnesota Vikings reportedly used draft capital to acquire high-end pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue from the Jacksonville Jaguars early Sunday morning. ESPN’s Adam Schefter was first to report the news, though the team has yet to announce the deal.
With Linval Joseph now playing in Los Angeles, Everson Griffen departed for the Dallas Cowboys, Michael Pierce opting out and Danielle Hunter injured for the last 11 practices and counting, three quarters of the Vikings once-feared defensive line are absent, leaving an unproven group that might have been a liability in the regular season. Ngakoue, who was discontent in Jacksonville after being offered the franchise tag, provides an immediate playmaker that restores some credibility to the Vikings’ pass-rushing unit.
Head coach Mike Zimmer wasn’t willing to speak about the unofficial trade on Sunday, but he offered this about the defensive line’s performance so far: “I think there’s been good moments and bad moments.”
With that, let’s dive in to what this trade means.
ANOTHER GREAT PASS RUSHER
A third-round pick from the 2016 draft, Ngakoue wasted no time making his presence felt in the AFC. In just his second year, Ngakoue teamed up with Calais Campbell to anchor the “Sacksonville” defensive line that nearly went to the Super Bowl. Ngakoue graded out as a top five pass-rusher that season, per Pro Football Focus, and recorded 12 sacks. He’s tallied eight or more sacks each of his first four seasons — one of seven players to have accomplished that in NFL history.
His ability to take the ball away is another huge draw. Ngakoue’s 14 forced fumbles since 2016 are the fourth most in the league, behind only Chandler Jones, Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt. That’s elite company.
If there’s a knock on Ngakoue in recent years, it’s his tackling. Ngakoue is on the books for 17 missed tackles combined the previous two seasons, which has been harmful against the run game. But again, his knack for stripping the football may make up for the occasional missed tackle.
Still, the acquisition creates another formidable pairing at defensive end, which the Vikings have seemingly boasted for over a decade. Danielle Hunter and Ngakoue — both 25 years old — may be the next generation.
INSURANCE FOR HUNTER
There is no telling when Hunter will put on a helmet again. It could be Monday. It could be weeks from now.
We likely won’t know the nature of Hunter’s injury until Sept. 9, when the first mandatory injury report gets released. Head coach Mike Zimmer has only defined it as a “tweak” and deferred to trainer Eric Sugarman on clearing Hunter for practice. The defensive end has not been seen rehabbing, which makes the injury all the more mysterious.
Hunter’s absence has pulled back the curtain on how little established talent remains on the defensive line. Ifeadi Odenigbo has the best upside of the bunch after recording seven sacks in a situational role last year, but he’s never been a full-time player. The No. 3 end seemed to be Jalyn Holmes, who converted there from defensive tackle. The next backup is Eddie Yarbrough, a 27-year-old that hasn’t started a game since 2017 and barely played in 2019.
Without Hunter, things looked bleak.
“We’re being cautious with him,” Zimmer said, “rightfully so.”
In the short term, Ngakoue gives the Vikings someone to plug in if Hunter’s absence extends into the regular season. Plus, there’s no guarantee Hunter would remain healthy for the full 16 games even if he bounced back quickly from his current injury. Ngakoue keeps the Vikings’ defensive line somewhat threatening even without Hunter, and once they can share the field at the same time, the Vikings may have a tandem even better than what they’d have had with Griffen.
For every big acquisition there’s a player that ends getting knocked down a rung. In this case it’s Ifeadi Odenigbo, who appeared in line to be a full-time starter.
— Ifeadi The Storyteller (@IfeadiOdenigbo) August 30, 2020
From a depth chart standpoint, the Vikings are now vastly improved. Odenigbo can reprise his role from last year as a rotational edge rusher who moves inside on passing downs.
“We’ve used him inside in pass rush before,” Zimmer said, “so that’s probably a natural progression.”
Odenigbo, though, likely saw the opportunity to play for a big contract this season. But contracts usually get negotiated based on production, and production comes with reps. Odenigbo will surely see a significant rep reduction — that is, if Hunter rejoins the D-line sooner than later. Odds are, Odenigbo will have to spend another year as a utility man.
Behind Odenigbo, it would appear one out of Jalyn Holmes and Eddie Yarbrough could be in jeopardy of getting cut. Rookie D.J. Wonnum could also be on the fringe, but his fourth-round status may earn him a spot, even if it ends up being a redshirt year.
DRAFT PICKS TRADED
Schefter’s report indicates the Vikings are giving up a second-round pick and a conditional fifth-round pick that could escalate as high as a third. But thanks to Rick Spielman’s savvy dealing during the 2020 draft — on top of compensatory picks likely coming the Vikings’ way from free agent departures — Minnesota still has 10 picks remaining.
Dealing their second-round pick for Ngakoue leaves them without a selection in that round, but assuming the other half of the compensation stays as a fifth, the Vikings maintain two third-round picks, three fourth-round picks and an additional fifth-round pick — enough arsenal to rejoin the second round if desired.
Draft capital may have less value in 2021 anyway. There’s no certainty college football will be played this season due to COVID-19, so scouting will be more inexact than ever. To turn picks into a tangible asset versus spending them on potential mystery prospects is a smart maneuver.
The Vikings will have to get creative with money. It looked for a while like the Vikings were on a spending freeze until the 2021 salary cap came into focus. In theory, they could’ve carried their available cash into next year to create more flexibility. Now they’ll have to finagle a way to fit Ngakoue’s 2020 compensation under the cap and presumably figure out a way to extend him after the season. Fortunately for Minnesota, Ngakoue refused to sign his franchise tag, which means they have the ability to negotiate down his franchise tag figure that would have been over $17 million. Had he signed it (as Anthony Harris did), the team would be required to honor the one-year pact. July 15 was the deadline to negotiate extensions, so the Vikings may have to cross their fingers Ngakoue is willing to stay in Minnesota beyond this year.
Financially, they Vikings have other priorities, though Ngakoue might become objective No. 1. Harris and Dalvin Cook are also looking for new deals, and right tackle Brian O’Neill will be looking for a lucrative extension after this year if he performs well. Good luck fitting all of that into a depressed cap environment.