MINNEAPOLIS — Yannick Ngakoue just joined the Minnesota Vikings this week, taking part in his first practice of the entire calendar year a mere 10 days in advance of the season opener.
The fifth-year pass-rushing specialist has hardly a worry about finding his rhythm with a new team in time for the first game Sept. 13 against Green Bay. Simply donning a different colored jersey has provided the necessary jolt.
“Breath of fresh air," Ngakoue said Friday, in his first session with reporters since the Vikings fulfilled his desire to depart Jacksonville and sent two draft picks to the Jaguars in a trade that was finalized Monday.
“I’m still in shape. Just knocking a little bit of the rust off,” Ngakoue said.
After Ngakoue's agent and the rapidly changing Jaguars reached a stalemate over a long-term contract, the club slapped the franchise tag on him. He was the only player in the NFL this year with such a designation, which came with a $17.8 million salary, to refuse to sign it. Ngakoue first demanded to be dealt in March and then took his spat with the Jaguars onto the social media, where he traded insults with Tony Khan, the son of the majority owner and a senior vice-president .
Though Ngakoue is second in Jaguars history with 37 1/2 sacks accumulated over only four seasons, the Jaguars didn't believe their 2016 third-round draft pick was worth such a hefty investment. His welcome worn out, Ngakoue declined to take part in any team activities until, ultimately, the trade to Minnesota was struck. Ngakoue is one of several key players who've been purged by the Jaguars lately just three seasons after the team reached the AFC championship game.
“I kind of felt a little disheartened about it, 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,” Ngakoue said, later adding: “Unfortunately, it couldn’t get done in Jacksonville for some of us, but at the end of the day, we still have opportunities. There’s 31 other teams, and guys have got opportunities to showcase their talents and to get the contracts they deserve.”
The salary cap-strapped Vikings reworked Ngakoue's deal for $12 million this season, with the possibility of a long-term contract awaiting if he can provide the reliable pressure from the right defensive end spot that will only boost star Danielle Hunter on the opposite side.
“When they talk about edge rushers, we want them to talk about Danielle and Yannick. I’m just glad that we’re on the same team and can push each other each and every day," Ngakoue said. "I’m pretty sure our friendship will build as time goes on.”
Hunter has not participated in practice since on-field workouts were first opened Aug. 14 to the media because of an unspecified injury that coach Mike Zimmer has downplayed as a “tweak.” Zimmer said Friday “we'll just have to see” if Hunter will play against the Packers.
Ngakoue must quickly grasp a new scheme that will now require him to operate out of a three-point stance rather than as a stand-up rusher, but the 25-year-old product of Maryland is a high-energy, hardworking player with the skills to make up for lost time.
“He seemed to catch on to the basic things pretty well. I think he’ll fit in fine. He seems like he’s a good guy, and I think he’ll add something to the defence ,” Zimmer said.
Ngakoue, who has 14 career forced fumbles, paid new teammate Jalyn Holmes for the No. 91 jersey.
“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.”
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Dave Campbell, The Associated Press