Perhaps the largest storyline of the Jacksonville Jaguars' offseason has been that of veteran edge defender Yannick Ngakoue who has been unable to come to terms on a long-term extension with the team.
The Jaguars placed the franchise tag tender on Ngakoue in March, but the Pro Bowl edge defender has yet to sign it and has made it clear that he does not wish to play for the organization after the two sides didn’t finalize a contract last offseason.
Ngakoue’s displeasure with the team and its front office are apparent, and Jaguars fans have understandably criticized the Jaguars for not locking up a talented home-grown player. But when removing the subjective factors like player disgruntlement and fan opinions that have surrounded this story, how much is Ngakoue truly worth in today’s NFL edge defender market?
The best way to answer that question is to compare Ngakoue with his peers — the players he wishes to join as the highest-paid edge defenders in the league.
How Ngakoue Compares to Top Edge Defenders
According to ESPN, Ngakoue was offered a deal worth $19 million annually but his camp wanted a contract closer to $22 million annually- which would have made Ngakoue the third highest-paid non-quarterback player in terms of yearly salary behind only Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald at the time.
The chart below details the current contract details (per Over the Cap) of Ngakoue, assuming he signs his franchise tender, and the NFL’s five highest-paid edge defenders.
|Player||Current Age||Total Contract Value||Average Per Year||Year Signed|
This is a sound group of comparable players, as Mack and Miller are among the NFL’s elite edge defenders and Lawrence, Clark and Flowers were in similar situations as Ngakoue as young star players signed to their first long-term contracts.
The following player comparisons use data from each player’s four seasons prior to their respective contracts in order to assess their value going into contract talks, similar to Ngakoue’s current situation. Data courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
A few observations:
-Ngakoue’s cumulative totals are encouraging, but he did rank third in respective defensive snap rate among the group. The four far-right columns are better representations of player performance in part because it takes playing time into account. Ngakoue’s ranking is underwhelming in those categories- he ranks last in the group in pressure rate, PFF grade and run defense PFF grade, albeit third in pass rush PFF grade.
-Pressures are generally a better metric than sacks- per PFF, pressures are twice as stable as sacks year-to-year, as sack totals tend to be noisy. So while Ngakoue produced the third-highest sacks in the group, his last-place pressure rate is concerning. Ngakoue’s ability to sack the quarterback at a higher rate than expected is appreciable but could also be a hint of future regression.
-Ngakoue is likely third in pass-rushing PFF grade despite his relatively poor pressure rate in part because he turned pressures into sacks more often but also because he ranked second in forced fumbles, which is Ngakoue’s calling card. This is the area in which Ngakoue truly shines, as he ranks fourth among all players in forced fumbles since entering the league.
-While pass rushing is more important than rush defense, it’s still alarming to see Ngakoue rank so poorly in run categories. If he wants to be paid as a top edge defender, his rush defense should at least be above-average rather than a borderline liability. Ngakoue has registered a high number of tackles for loss, but as illustrated by his PFF grade, he isn’t a consistently reliable run defender on a snap-by-snap basis.
Consistency in general is really the only thing holding Ngakoue back from being an elite edge defender. As shown by the high tackle for loss, forced fumble and sack totals, the talent is obviously there- but as shown by the total tackles, pressure rate and PFF grades, the ability to dominate on a consistent basis is not.
Input from the Analytics Community
It’s worth mentioning that “the analytics” likely would not support the decision to sign Ngakoue to the lucrative contract he desires. One reason is that his production doesn’t meet his asking price, as shown above. Another is that team defensive performance is generally the result of roster depth as opposed to star power.
For example: Michael Strahan set the single-season record for sacks with 22.5 in 2001, yet his New York Giants defense ranked 17th in points allowed and 16th in yards per play allowed. And Aaron Donald earned the highest single-season PFF grade of 95.4 in 2018, yet his Los Angeles Rams defense ranked 20th in points allowed and 27th in yards per play allowed.
Ngakoue’s presence would undoubtedly benefit Jacksonville’s defense for the next several years, but his performance alone won’t be enough to elevate the team - especially as the current roster stands - which teams should consider when negotiating a single contract that could deplete a considerable percentage of the team’s cap space.
If Jacksonville were to sign a single defensive player to a large deal, it would probably be wiser to target a cornerback. Analysts from both PFF and ESPN have asserted that pass rushing isn’t as valuable as many might think. In short, PFF’s study found that secondary performance correlates to winning more than pass-rush performance, and ESPN’s study found that pass blocking performance correlates to winning more than pass-rush performance. This doesn’t mean that pass rushing isn’t important, but rather that it isn’t as valuable as team performance in other areas.
Even ignoring those findings and assuming pass rushing is extremely valuable, it would still be wise to focus on edge rushers in the draft as opposed to free agency. This strategy would offer a large discount (the nine highest-paid defensive players in the NFL this season are defensive linemen, while the highest-paid coverage player ranks 10th, indicating an inefficiency in the market) and pass-rushing is generally easier to predict from the college level than secondary play (pressure rate and pass-rushing PFF grade both have higher correlations than completion percentage allowed and coverage PFF grade from college to the pros, per PFF).
So: in a vacuum, from an analytical perspective, not overpaying Ngakoue is likely the right decision.
Determining Ngakoue’s True Value
Based on age, contract status, and statistical production, Spotrac estimates Ngakoue’s calculated market value as $17.1 million annually. Over the Cap projects a four-year contract worth $78 million for Ngakoue, which would pay him $19.5 million annually.
A median offer of $18 million annually would be fair, considering Ngakoue’s comparisons to top players at his position and his relative inconsistency. That would still make Ngakoue the fifth-highest paid edge defender in the league.
Based on this valuation, the Jaguars may be receiving unjustified criticism for failing to reach an agreement with Ngakoue assuming his reported asking price is accurate. Of course, there are other, more subjective factors that influence contract decisions, like player relations and organizational culture, which the Jaguars appear to be lacking. But the decision not to overpay Ngakoue is likely the right one, even if the public doesn’t perceive it that way.
Yannick Ngakoue is a very talented player who deserves a long-term contract in the NFL. But any team that pays Ngakoue north of $20 million per year, even considering age and potential future production, would be making an investment unlikely to yield profitable results factoring in cost of employment.
The Jaguars' front office has made a number of egregious errors at times and there are certainly subjective factors to consider. It’s also possible that Ngakoue’s dispute is based on contract length or guaranteed money or another factor that the public isn’t aware of. But based on what we do know, from a strictly statistical standpoint, Jacksonville’s reported offer of $19 million annually last season was a fair one.