Dating to the days of Jared Allen and Brian Robison, the Vikings enjoyed the luxury of two productive pass rushers on their four-man defensive line for all of the 2010s.
They’ll begin the 2020s, it appears, with two Pro Bowlers under the age of 26.
Sources with knowledge of the situation confirmed the team swung an early-morning trade on Sunday with the Jaguars for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, sending a 2021 second-round pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-rounder to Jacksonville for Ngakoue, who had been the subject of trade rumors for much of the offseason after the team placed the franchise tag on him. The tag would have paid him $17.78 million for the 2020 season, but Ngakoue (who had not signed the tag or reported to camp) took nearly a $6 million pay cut, according to a league source. He’ll play for $12 million this season, allowing the Vikings to fit him under their salary cap with just $206,078 to spare.
“We’ve been looking for another pass rusher for quite a while,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “I think that’s important when you have a young secondary as well. If it goes through, then I think that adds to what we can do.”
While Zimmer clarified a reporter’s pronunciation of Ngakoue’s first name — “It’s Ya-nique,” he said — he added he’s not officially allowed to comment on the trade until it’s complete. “[VP of football operations] Rob [Brzezinski] and [general manager] Rick [Spielman] are trying to finalize the business side of things,” Zimmer said.
The Vikings, sources said, stepped up their pursuit of Ngakoue after missing out on bringing back Everson Griffen, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Cowboys on Aug. 16. Sources said then the Vikings had made a competitive offer for Griffen, with Zimmer leading the effort to persuade the 32-year-old to return for another season. When Griffen signed with Dallas, the Vikings mobilized their 2021 draft capital to land Ngakoue over the weekend.
They’d already stockpiled 12 draft picks for next year, landing a fourth-rounder as part of the Stefon Diggs trade, an extra fourth- and fifth-rounder in draft day trades this year and expecting to secure a third-round compensatory pick as a result of Trae Waynes’ departure in free agency.
Ngakoue, a third-round pick in 2016, had his best year in 2017, when he led the NFL with six forced fumbles and posted 12 sacks for a Jaguars team that came within a game of the Super Bowl (as the Vikings also did that season). He forced 14 fumbles in four years for the Jaguars, registering 37 ½ sacks during that time.
Now that the Vikings presumably have Ngakoue for 2020, questions remain about what they will do with him going forward.
They’ll likely restructure a veteran contract in the coming days to clear space for other needs after finalizing Ngakoue’s deal, and will have the ability to work out a long-term deal with the defensive end starting next offseason, given that he didn’t sign his franchise tag.
But the Vikings could have to contend with a salary cap that might drop in 2021 as a result of revenue declines from the COVID-19 pandemic keeping fans out of games in 2020. The deal for Ngakoue would seemingly make efforts to resuscitate contract talks with Dalvin Cook more difficult after the Vikings reached an impasse with Cook’s agent earlier this month. The team could place the franchise tag on Cook after the season but will have to see if the running back’s pronouncements about being willing to play without a new deal change between now and the start of the regular season on Sept. 13.
The team will also have to see when it can put its new pass-rushing tandem on the field, given that Danielle Hunter has missed 12 straight practices with an injury that Zimmer has only described as a “tweak.” Zimmer said Sunday morning the Vikings are being cautious with Hunter, “and rightfully so,” adding he didn’t think it would take Hunter long to get ready to play.
“Even if we just put him in on third downs or pass rush situations, he’s been in great shape,” Zimmer said. “He looks great. I don’t think it’ll take long.”
Hunter, who restructured his 2020 salary to help the Vikings clear cap space this offseason, is only the 18th-highest-paid defensive end in the league despite reaching 50 sacks faster than any player in NFL history. He is signed through 2023, but his pay rate could be a factor in how the Vikings approach discussions on a long-term deal for Ngakoue.
In the meantime, though, they’ve again given co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson bookend pass rushers, with the ability to play Ifeadi Odenigbo in different spots. Moving Odenigbo around to different positions as a pass rusher, Zimmer said Sunday morning, “is probably a natural progression” if the Ngakoue trade is finalized.
The Vikings’ defensive approach has been built on the idea that a disruptive line makes the difference, and they made a bold move to bolster it on Sunday morning.