For the second straight year, the Ravens have struck a midseason deal to upgrade their defense.
The Ravens agreed to terms Thursday on a trade for Minnesota Vikings defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. Over the past four seasons, the former Maryland standout and 2017 Pro Bowl selection ranks 11th in the NFL in sacks (42½), eighth in quarterback hits (92) and third in forced fumbles (16).
The Ravens are sending Minnesota a 2021 third-round draft pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-round pick. Ngakoue is expected to undergo his physical Thursday or Friday in Owings Mills and begin his six-day COVID-19 entry testing process, which is mandatory for newly acquired players.
“We are excited to add Yannick Ngakoue to our football team,” Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta said in a statement. “Yannick is someone who we are very familiar with going back to the draft process years ago. 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.
"Finally, we are not finished building this team, as we continue to chase our ultimate goals.”
Ngakoue (pronounced Yah-NEEK In-GAH-kway), a Bowie native, arrived in Minnesota in late August after the Jaguars traded him for a 2021 second-round pick and conditional 2022 fifth-round pick. The deal sealed a messy divorce after four standout years in Jacksonville, which had designated Ngakoue with the franchise tag despite his desire to be traded.
The Ravens were interested in acquiring Ngakoue this offseason, but with the team’s trade and new contract for defensive end Calais Campbell, as well as outside linebacker Matthew Judon’s franchise tag, the cost of a deal proved prohibitive. The Ravens also looked into adding defensive end Jadeveon Clowney through a proposed sign-and-trade with the Jaguars that the NFL reportedly nixed.
Ngakoue ultimately agreed to a pay cut in Minnesota — a one-year, $12 million deal, almost $6 million less than the value of Jacksonville’s franchise tag — because he wanted to play with a contender. With the Vikings (1-5) off their worst start under coach Mike Zimmer, however, Ngakoue became expendable.
“This was an opportunity that I felt would accomplish both the short and long term as we move forward,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman told local reporters Thursday. “But these decisions aren’t easy to make.”
Ngakoue, 25, has five sacks in six games this season, which would rank first on the Ravens, as well as two forced fumbles, seven quarterback hits and 12 tackles (five for losses). Campbell, who starred with Ngakoue in Jacksonville, has four sacks. Since entering the NFL as a third-round pick after a record-setting Maryland career, Ngakoue has 42½ sacks in 69 games.
While Ngakoue has established himself as a premier pass rusher, his 2020 season has been a mixed bag. His 11% pass-rush win rate as an edge defender ranks 32nd out of 47 qualifying players, according to ESPN. Pro Football Focus has graded the 6-foot-2, 246-pound Ngakoue as a below-average run defender, though he could be used in a rotation for more pass-rush situations in Baltimore.
With the Ravens (5-1) in the middle of their bye week, Ngakoue is expected to be available for their Week 8 game against the AFC North-leading Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 1.
“I know he wants to win,” Campbell told the team website Thursday. “He loves the game of football. This is a place where he’s going to flourish. This culture, it’s going to help bring the best out of him and his game. He’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be. I mean, he’s maturing, getting older. And this team is going to really benefit from him being here.”
The Ravens have the NFL’s stingiest defense through Week 6, allowing only 17.3 points per game, and under defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, it’s become one of the most blitz-happy units in recent years. This season, the defense has blitzed on 46.1% of opposing drop-backs, according to Pro-Football-Reference, second only to the Steelers' 46.3%.
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Ngakoue’s arrival could allow Martindale to rely on four-man pressure packages more often — something the team struggled to do in its sole loss this season, to the Kansas City Chiefs — or double down on his defensive philosophy.
After a slow start, the Ravens have recorded 13 sacks in their past two wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles. They have 22 this season, tied for second most, including eight from defensive backs. Their 29.2% pressure rate ranks third in the league, behind only the Steelers and Chiefs, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
Ngakoue is expected to start opposite Judon, who led the team last year with 9½ sacks. The Ravens have solid depth behind them, with a mix of versatile outside linebackers including Pernell McPhee (two sacks), Tyus Bowser (two sacks) and Jaylon Ferguson (one sack).
Ngakoue will count $5.2 million against the Ravens' salary cap, meaning the team will likely have to do some contract restructuring to get under the cap. He’ll also be a free agent after this season, set to hit the open market with defensive end Jihad Ward, Judon, McPhee and Bowser. Only Ferguson, a third-round pick in 2019, is under contract through at least the 2021 season.
With the NFL’s salary cap set to fall from $198.2 million to as low as $175 million next year, the Ravens will face tough decisions on whom to keep this offseason. But if Judon and Ngakoue sign big-money deals elsewhere, the Ravens will likely earn a third-round compensatory draft pick for each player.
The Ravens' trade Thursday comes a year after the Ravens acquired All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters from the Los Angeles Rams two weeks before the trade deadline, forming one of the NFL’s top tandems with Marlon Humphrey. DeCosta also traded a fifth-round pick to the Jaguars in March for Campbell.
The trade deadline this year is Nov. 3, but the Ravens have already made one of the NFL’s biggest moves.