JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Yannick Ngakoue has done everything the same way since the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him 69th overall in the third round of the 2016 draft. He has hustled. He has played with passion. He has hit quarterbacks often and violently. And he has forced fumbles.
In what could have been, and maybe likely, the final game of his Jaguars career, Ngakoue did this all and more as he helped propel Jacksonville to a 38-20 win over the Indianapolis Colts at TIAA Bank Field to close out the 2019 season.
“How he plays out there is just how he practices every day. He’s awesome and couldn’t ask more from a teammate," Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II said about his teammate after the game. "As a player, he’s one of the best in the game too so hopefully we can keep him around because he’s a super special dude and great player.”
Ngakoue did all of the things Sunday that made his coaches, teammates, and Jaguars fans fall in love with his game. He came close to sacking Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett a handful of times but came up short each time. Finally, with about 9:00 left in the game and Jacksonville holding a 24-20 lead, Ngakoue did what he has done so many other times: change the game.
As Brissett scrambled out of the pocket looking for a first down, while backed up at his own goal line, Ngakoue made the total effort play. He picked himself up off of the ground and sprinted at Brissett, leaping for a tackle from behind. During his tackle, he knocked the ball out of his hands, forcing a fumble.
Defensive lineman Calais Campbell would scoop the fumble and return it eight yards for a touchdown, giving Jacksonville a comfortable 31-20 lead.
"He plays with so much tenacity and he can change the game," Campbell said. "I mean when he stripped the ball away and caused the fumble it gave me the opportunity to pick up the ball and score a touchdown for the team."
The play was the perfect summarization of who Ngakoue is and what his principles are. He has always played with a prideful chip on his shoulder and flew around the field with reckless abandon. Tonight was no different.
“When I first got here, I was considered a third-down rusher. I was counted out. I was the 69th pick; I got passed up by all 32 teams three times," Ngakoue said in the locker room following the game. "I just tried to improve my run game while also trying to be a better leader for these guys.”
Ngakoue's big night ended what was a successful season for the 24-year old defensive end. He tallied eight sacks, four forced fumbles and career-best 13 tackles for loss in 2019.
"What’s interesting, before he went out I told him, ‘We stop them the first two downs and it’s third down, I expect a safety.’ You know what I’m saying? And then on the third down play, he gets knocked down -- I don’t know if you guys were able to see that -- here’s a guy that gets back up, runs, strip-fumble," head coach Doug Marrone said.
"What better way than for Calais Campbell to grab it up and go? It’s almost like if you had to write a story, that would be the story, and a lot of times that doesn’t happen.”
Now after 63 career games in Jacksonville, the player with the second-most sacks in franchise history (37.5) is set to become a free agent. What Ngakoue wants is simple: to become one of the highest-paid players at his position.
Does he think that will happen in Jacksonville?
“I have been here for four years and I’ve learned a lot," Ngakoue said multiple times after the game. "Business is business and I’m not sure what the future holds.”
Could Jacksonville place the franchise or transition tag on Ngakoue, pushing back a huge extension for him? They could. But if Ngakoue would actually play on that tag is a bigger question and one that maybe has already been answered.
But despite the non-stop questions about his contract status this week, and even this entire season, Ngakoue has continued to play a high-level. Marrone said in the past he has coached players who have let the unknown contract situation affect them in practice and on Sunday's, but Ngakoue never has,
And that is simply just the person and player Ngakoue is. He does things his way and with principles. If Sunday was it for Ngakoue in Jacksonville, then he went out the only way he knows how.