Ngakoue: ‘Fresh start’ with Vikes worth pay cut

    Covered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017.

EAGAN, Minn. — Yannick Ngakoue isn’t troubled by leaving nearly $6 million on the table when he agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings after being traded by Jacksonville Jaguars this week.

Instead, the defensive end views joining the Vikings as a “fresh start” and a “breath of fresh air.”

“Money was never my drive coming into this business,” Ngakoue said Friday. “It has never been my drive. I’ve always wanted to be a great-caliber guy, great-quality guy, on and off the field. I just needed a fresh start, and Minnesota was [the team] that gave me the opportunity to continue to live out my dream. I’m appreciative and excited.”

Jacksonville had placed the franchise tag, worth $17.778 million, on the 25-year-old edge rusher this offseason. Ngakoue refused to sign the tender and publicly vented about his desire to play for another team.

Minnesota became the destination for Ngakoue after the Vikings looked to add another pass-rusher late in training camp upon failing to re-sign Everson Griffen, who spent 10 seasons with the team before taking a one-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent.

“The Vikings kind of came out of the blue, and I was excited to know that,” Ngakoue said. “There were some teams that had interest and they shied away due to just difficult situations, we couldn’t get things done, but I just appreciate Minnesota so much for having faith in me and being able to grasp me and get me here.”

Because Ngakoue did not sign his tender by the July 15 deadline, Minnesota is unable to work out a long-term deal with the edge rusher until the 2021 offseason. While sources have indicated to ESPN that the Vikings hope to retain Ngakoue beyond this season, either with a second franchise tag or through a multiyear contract, he said his focus remains on getting ready for the season, which is nine days away.

“I haven’t really thought about a long-term deal or anything like that,” Ngakoue said. “The only thing that’s been on my mind is getting acclimated and adjusted to the new playbook. It’s a different scheme from what I’ve ran in Jacksonville. Just getting all those things locked in my mind so I can be ready for Week 1 and help this team as much as I can.”

Ngakoue’s departure from the Jaguars is the latest in a series of moves that shine a troubling light on the franchise. In October, star cornerback Jalen Ramsey forced his way out of Jacksonville via a trade to the Los Angeles Rams. The Jaguars also parted ways this offseason with veteran cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive end Calais Campbell, trading them for draft picks.

“After not retaining a long-term deal with Jacksonville, I kind of felt a little disheartened about it,” Ngakoue said of his desire to leave the Jaguars. “But at the end of the day, it’s business. I’m still thankful and appreciative they gave me an opportunity to have my dream for four years. It’s always going to be love for Jacksonville, but I felt like, and my family as well, we felt like it was best for me to be able to move forward to a new place, new organization and just get a fresh start.”

The defensive end’s first practice of 2020 took place Thursday, two days before the Vikings wrapped the preseason. In spite of missing training camp, Ngakoue said he impressed himself with how ready he feels for Week 1.

“I’m actually surprised how well I’ve been,” Ngakoue said. “Like you said, I haven’t practiced all of 2020. That was my first practice, and for it to be full pads, for me to still feel like I’m still in shape, just knocking a little bit of the rust off, I feel like that’s a blessing. So eight, nine days from now, being with [co-defensive coordinator/defensive line] Coach [Andre] Patterson, I know he’ll get me groomed up enough to the point where I should be able to hopefully make some plays for these guys.”

Playing alongside fellow Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter was also a driving force behind Ngakoue’s decision.

“I know that he’s a guy that’s put up double-digit sacks two years,” Ngakoue said. “You can definitely learn from a guy like that. I did it one season, and I want to continue that trend of being able to get back to that elite status. Just having him push me and I push him and we can teach each other different things. I feel like we’ll complement each other really good and well.

“We want to become the best of the best. We want to be elite. When they talk about edge rushers, we want them to talk about Danielle and Yannick. I’m just glad, like I said, that we’re on the same team and can push each other each and every day. I’m pretty sure our friendship will build as time goes on.”

Ngakoue has 37.5 career sacks and 14 forced fumbles since he was drafted as a third-round pick in 2016 out of Maryland. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, Ngakoue is one of seven NFL players to produce 8.0 or more sacks in each of their first four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The No. 91 jersey Ngakoue wore for four seasons in Jacksonville was recently occupied by Vikings defensive end Jalyn Holmes, who tweeted a GIF on Thursday insinuating that Ngakoue offered him a considerable sum for a jersey swap. Ngakoue jokingly said he could not disclose how much he paid the third-year defensive end but that it wasn’t “too much.”

“That’s how you identify me in this league,” Ngakoue said. “I feel like there’s only one 91 in this era now that can do what I do. That’s why the number was so special to me. Jalyn had to let people know it was paid for, but it’s nothing like that. It’s about respect. People know me in this league as No. 91, and I want to continue to have that number all the way until I’m retired.”

Holmes will now wear No. 90.

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