After unsuccessfully trying to acquire impact edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue leading up to the start of the 2020 season, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t have to wait long to see the truth about his defense.
Despite marked improvement since last year’s loss at Kansas City, Wink Martindale’s unit still wasn’t good enough to slow down Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champions in a decisive 34-20 home loss in Week 3. The Ravens have sent extra rushers more than anyone in the NFL since the start of last season, but Mahomes shreds the blitz and did it once again that Monday night by completing 17 of 20 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns against the blitz, according to Pro Football Focus.
The blitz-heavy style may feast on lesser opponents as the 5-1 Ravens entered Week 7 allowing the fewest points per game in the NFL and are tied for second with 22 sacks – 16 against three of the league’s worst offensive lines in their last three games — but Baltimore knew it needed a more impactful four-man pass rush and additional bodies in coverage for a potential January rematch with the Chiefs. That’s why DeCosta pulled the trigger acquiring Ngakoue from Minnesota in exchange for a 2021 third-round pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-rounder on Thursday.
The former University of Maryland standout and Bowie native had been on the Ravens’ radar long before he was selected in the third round of the 2016 draft – one spot before Baltimore took defensive end Bronson Kaufusi – and spent his first four seasons with Jacksonville. After receiving the franchise tag in March and making clear he no longer wanted to play for the Jaguars, Ngakoue was traded to the Vikings on Aug. 31.
The 6-foot-2, 246-pound pass rusher has five sacks, two forced fumbles, and 10 tackles in six games this season, but Minnesota’s woeful 1-5 start made the 25-year-old pending free agent expendable, allowing DeCosta to pounce on the opportunity to strengthen his pass rush. PFF has graded Ngakoue 47th among qualified edge rushers so far this season, but he graded 34th or better in each of the previous three years with Jacksonville.
With eight or more sacks in each of his first four seasons, Ngakoue has also forced 16 fumbles in his career to go with 42 1/2 quarterback takedowns in 69 career games.
“Yannick is someone whom we are very familiar with going back to the draft process years ago,” DeCosta said in a statement released by the team. “He is an exciting player and a dangerous pass rusher who makes us better. Yannick grew up here. He’s the type of person we welcome in our building.”
The deal is pending the passing of a physical and COVID-19 intake testing, but the bye week should allow the 2017 Pro Bowl selection to get settled into his new surroundings before the Week 8 clash with AFC North-leading Pittsburgh. The move also reunites Ngakoue with former Jaguars teammate Calais Campbell, who leads the defense with four sacks in his first season with the Ravens. The pair combined for 61 sacks in their three seasons together in Jacksonville from 2017-19.
It will be interesting to see what Ngakoue’s arrival means for an outside linebacker rotation that is led by 2019 Pro Bowl selection Matthew Judon and has included five options who’ve played at least 31 percent of defensive snaps apiece. Ngakoue has played at least 72 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in each of the last four seasons, which will mean a reduced role for at least one or two incumbents off the edge. That depth could also allow the Ravens to limit Ngakoue’s early-down snaps to make him even more productive in obvious passing situations.
A four-man rush of Ngakoue, Judon, Campbell, and another option like Pernell McPhee, Derek Wolfe, or Brandon Williams immediately looks more formidable on paper than any combination Baltimore has had over the last couple years. And that’s not factoring in the many deceptive looks deployed by Martindale.
There’s also the question of what will happen with Ngakoue from a contractual standpoint as he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after 2020. He has plenty of company in that department with Judon, McPhee, Tyus Bowser, and Jihad Ward also set to hit free agency at the end of the season. Ngakoue will be making the remainder of his $8 million base salary, meaning the Ravens will likely need to restructure a contract or two to create enough salary cap space for normal in-season roster flexibility and the possibility of making another notable move before the Nov. 3 trade deadline.
With real questions remaining about the interior offensive line and a struggling passing game ranking 22nd in the league at 7.0 yards per passing attempt, the final sentence of DeCosta’s statement on Ngakoue stood out on Thursday.
“We are not finished building this team as we continue to chase our ultimate goals.”
Time will tell whether the Ravens make additional moves, but Ngakoue’s acquisition makes clear their intent to earn another shot against Kansas City, this time with a different outcome.