JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Cornerback Jalen Ramsey was the can’t-miss draft pick. Defensive tackle Malik Jackson was the $90 million free agent. Pass-rusher Dante Fowler Jr. was the key piece returning from injury.
Rookie Yannick Ngakoue is having as big an impact as any of them for the Jacksonville Jaguars this season.
A third-round pick from Maryland, Ngakoue has a team-leading three sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception that set up a touchdown. And the Jaguars (1-3), who have a bye this week, believe he’s just getting started.
“Every year in this league you have guys stepping up and things like that, so it’s no surprise,” Jaguars linebacker Telvin Smith said.
“You can’t look at a piece of paper or a draft pick or what his check is and say, ‘This guy is going to be this.’ That’s what I love about this league: You’ve got to go out and re-prove yourself every Sunday, every Monday, every Thursday.
“Every time you step on that field, you have to say, ‘This is who I am.’ And right now, he’s doing a great job of it.”
Ngakoue is one of eight NFL players to notch at least one sack in each of the past three weeks. He also has a forced fumble in three straight games, and now leads all rookies in both categories. His three sacks tied him with Kevin Hardy (1996) for the most by a rookie through four games in franchise history.
“It’s not surprising to us because he works like that in practice,” coach Gus Bradley said. “The cool thing is that he is carrying it over, and if there is a time where he gets stuck or blocked, it doesn’t frustrate him to the next play. He recovers quickly and he has been playing at a high level.”
Ngakoue (pronounced In-GACK-way) played at a high level as a junior at Maryland. He set a school record with 13½ sacks and ranked second in the nation in sacks per game.
The Jaguars viewed Ngakoue as a perfect fit at the team’s pass-rushing “Leo” position behind Fowler, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft who missed his rookie season because of a knee injury.
It’s an important spot in Bradley’s 4-3 scheme and one the Jaguars failed to fill the previous three years with Jason Babin, Jeremy Mincey, Chris Clemons, Andre Branch, Ryan Davis and Chris Smith.
Jacksonville parted ways with Clemons and Branch after last season, clearing the way for Fowler to step right into a starting role. But they needed a backup.
First-year defensive coordinator Todd Wash felt Ngakoue could be the guy, maybe even more.
“It was a situation where I was standing on the table earlier in the draft for him,” Wash said. “I loved him coming out. I know his temperament, his ability and I think you’re starting to see more. … We really like what we’ve seen in the draft and what we’re getting right now out of him.”
The revamped Jaguars rank sixth in the NFL in total defense, averaging 304.5 yards a game, and insist the unit is only going to get better the longer the new faces continue to jell.
Ramsey has been better than anyone expected, starting from Day 1 and basically shutting down top receivers every week.
Jackson has provided consistent pressure up the middle, keeping quarterbacks in the pocket and providing the catalyst for many of the team’s 12 sacks. Fowler has been solid, too, with two sacks and several big plays.
Ngakoue has been just as good, especially considering he hasn’t been on the field nearly as much.
“Got to play with a chip,” Ngakoue said. “Always underestimated and always out to prove something each and every day. Just because I made it to this level, it’s not the end. It’s just the beginning. That’s my mentality each and every day.”
It’s a good approach to have, especially as a rookie who’s had some early success.
The Jaguars love it, almost as much as they do his past three performances.
“His first step is really good,” Wash said. “He can cover some ground vertically. He has the ability to lean and bend. He not only is a speed guy, but has enough man in him to be a power rusher also. You can’t be a one-trick pony when you’re rushing the passer, so we’re very excited about him.”