NFLTR Review: Where Will Yannick Ngakoue Land?

Welcome to this week’s edition of NFLTR Review! We’ve got a loaded issue for your diving in deep on a few different topics:

  • Which two teams in the AFC East stand out as potential trade partners for Jacksonville to unload disgruntled DE Yannick Ngakoue?
  • How will the Chiefs build around their big-money quarterback?
  • A Colts running back who’s a fantasy sleeper.
  • And more!

Around the Trade Block: Yannick Ngakoue

In a shocking turn of events (not), the Jaguars and their star pass rusher continue to be at an impasse. Ngakoue remains resolute in his desire for a trade, while the organization appears not to be in a hurry to accommodate him, possibly emboldened by how well the situation with CB Jalen Ramsey worked out for them last fall. 

There are three ways this situation can end. 1) The Jaguars trade Ngakoue. 2) He holds out the entire season. 3) He swallows his pride and signs the franchise tag at some point before or during the season. And as hard as it would be to give up $17.8 million, option 3 might be the least likely outcome given how rancorous the relationship between the two sides has become. 

A trade ultimately makes the most sense for both parties. To part with Ngakoue, Jacksonville is likely eyeballing around what Seattle got for DE Frank Clark — a first, third and future second-round pick. Clark had 35 career sacks his first four seasons, Ngakoue has 37.5. 

However, a number of factors could push Ngakoue’s value closer to the second-round pick the Chiefs got for DE Dee Ford or the package the Texans accepted for DE Jadeveon Clowney that was highlighted by a third-round pick. Ngakoue has more sacks than either player despite entering the league two years later, but as evidenced by ESPN’s recent survey, he’s viewed more as a designated pass rusher than a complete defensive end by much of the NFL. His high franchise tender, long-term contract demands and the expected salary cap drop in 2021 are also contributing factors that depress his value. 

There’s been trade buzz around Ngakoue this offseason, so a market exists. Jacksonville reportedly turned down one offer that included a Pro Bowl player because he wasn’t a good scheme fit. The Jaguars should pull the trigger if they’re offered a first. There’s a good chance that hasn’t happened, though, and they’ll have to settle for less. 

As far as interested parties, about half the NFL could still technically fit Ngakoue under their cap right now based on our cap space tracker. One team, Philadelphia, was linked to Ngakoue at one point this offseason. But the Eagles are looking at a potential $75 million hole to dig out of in 2021 and likely need every dollar they can roll over to get under the cap. 

Out of the rest of the bunch, we can rule out the Colts, Texans and Titans as division rivals. The Bears, Broncos, Browns, Chargers and Washington are already well-stocked at defensive end, though it’s worth mentioning Ngakoue played his college ball at Maryland. Cincinnati’s front office is usually allergic to splash trades. The Dolphins, Bengals, Giants and Lions could all use another star pass rusher, but in the case of Miami, Detroit and New York, their defensive schemes de-emphasize paying a premium for pass rushers. And while New England can’t ever be ruled out of any trade conversation, the Patriots are unlikely to be involved for the same reason. 

That leaves the Bills and Jets. Bills GM Brandon Beane places a heavy emphasis on the defensive line. But beyond 2020, Buffalo has questions at edge rusher. Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison and Trent Murphy are all past their 30th birthday. At just 25, Ngakoue could be the long-term answer, and Beane has shown he’s willing to be aggressive to maximize the team’s window while QB Josh Allen is still on his rookie deal by dealing a first-round pick plus a bevy of late-rounders for WR Stefon Diggs

However, Diggs’ deal was fairly affordable by the time he got to Buffalo. Asking Beane to fork over a first-round pick for the right to pay Ngakoue is a tougher ask. Jacksonville’s offer on the table to Ngakoue when negotiations soured was reportedly worth $19 million a year. The table below shows how Ngakoue compares to other players at the time they were entering their first chance at major money after their rookie deals. 

Player Age Sacks APY
Yannick Ngakoue 25 37.5 ?
Frank Clark 26 35 $20.8M
Dee Ford 28 31.5 $17M
Demarcus Lawrence 27 34 $21M
Dante Fowler 25 27.5 $16M
Myles Garrett* 24 30.5 $25M
Joey Bosa 25 40 $27M

*Garrett just finished the third year of his rookie deal when he signed his extension

There’s a strong case to be made Ngakoue deserves to be closer to Bosa and Garrett than Ford and Fowler based on his sack total. But will Buffalo feel comfortable making that investment? The Bills already are spending the fifth-most on their edge-rushing group for 2020 and added DE A.J. Epenesa in the second round. The Bills can cut Murphy to save $7.3 million — and might do that anyway — but trading a first-round pick and a $24 million per year deal is a steep, steep price. A second-round pick and $21 million per year? That’s a lot more doable. 

The Jets have a lot more draft capital to play with than the Bills and an even bigger need at edge rusher. But money might be a bigger sticking point for them than Buffalo. Jets GM Joe Douglas drew a hard line on all his negotiations during his first offseason in charge. There’s some speculation cash flow problems and a mandate from ownership played a role, but Douglas’ executive background suggests it’s part of his philosophy. If Ngakoue was that offended by Jacksonville’s $19 million per year offer, there’s a decent chance he won’t like what he hears from Douglas. 

Then again, perhaps $21-$22 million is the magic number for both sides. And if Jacksonville is really holding out for a first-round pick, the Jets are the team best-positioned to part with one. If I was placing a bet on Ngakoue’s trade destination, I’d put it in the AFC East. 

The Big Picture: How Will The Chiefs Build Around Patrick Mahomes?

NFL general managers face a Sisyphean paradox in building their teams. Like the mythical Greek figure, GMs labor intensely to find their franchise quarterback, turning over every rock to secure the most important position in football. Once they do, however, they’re faced with another Herculean task: paying both their franchise quarterback and budgeting for the rest of the roster. 

The Chiefs and QB Patrick Mahomes are the latest example. After winning an MVP and a Super Bowl in his first three seasons, the game’s brightest young star signed a 10-year deal this summer that can be worth more than half a billion dollars. After extending Mahomes, the Chiefs turned around and signed DT Chris Jones to a big-ticket extension of his own, inking him for more than $21 million a year. With Clark making an average of $20.8 million per season, the Chiefs now roster a quarter of the NFL’s defenders who make $20+ million. 

Now the challenge for Chiefs GM Brett Veach becomes navigating a top-heavy roster as Kansas City tries to become the NFL’s next dynasty. The Chiefs haven’t mortgaged draft picks for stars like some teams, but they’re financially stretched thin. Kansas City has a little over $204 million on the books for 2021 right now per Over The Cap. If the salary cap is indeed at the $175 million floor agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA, that puts the Chiefs in a $30 million hole right off the bat. 

That sounds bad. It’s the type of number some people would latch onto to caution against overpaying quarterbacks will. In reality, the Chiefs can get out of that hole pretty easily, and while they probably won’t be players at the top of the free-agent market, they still should be able to field a quality team around the best player in the NFL — if Veach can figure out a few things. 

Figure out the answers already on the roster

The most prominent Chiefs free agent in 2021 is WR Sammy Watkins, who already restructured his contract to stay on board this year. Unless he’s willing to take another huge pay cut, Watkins is probably destined to land elsewhere in free agency, where competent receivers are usually snapped up quickly. So 2020 is a big year for 2019 second-round WR Mecole Hardman to show he can take on a bigger load in the future. Kansas City will also be looking to see if players like former UDFA WR Byron Pringle can develop into contributors. 

Other prominent free agents the Chiefs have coming up in 2021 include:

Wylie and Ward can likely be retained cheaply, but Kansas City will have a limited budget to bring back the other veterans. This is where Veach and the front office have to bet on their drafting acumen, both past and future, to fill out the roster. Rookie contract players like OL Martinas Rankin, third-round OT Lucas Niang (before he opted out), DE Breeland Speaks, second-round LB Willie Gay, LB Dorian O’Daniel, fourth-round CB L’Jarius Sneed and S Armani Watts can prove they deserve a shot to take over for players currently ahead of them on the depth chart. 

The more of them that hit, the more flexibility Veach will have in the draft to balance long-term considerations over short-term needs. 

Dig out of the cap hole

The easiest move to create space is restructuring Mahomes’ contract. He’s due a $21.716 million roster bonus that can be converted to a signing bonus and spread over five years. Mahomes will just be turning 30 in five years so it’s extremely unlikely the Chiefs will regret pushing some money back. That move alone creates $17.5 million in space. 

Jones’ deal is also very amenable to a restructure. He has no guaranteed money beyond his $21.5 million base salary in 2021, which could be converted into a signing bonus to create another roughly $14 million in space. Those two moves alone should push Kansas City into the black. 

As for other avenues to create space, middle-class veterans are likely to get the short end of the stick in 2021 as every team navigates the situation. On the Chiefs, RB Damien Williams and DE Alex Okafor are the two most likely targets, as cutting them frees up nearly $8 million in savings with just $2.5 million in dead money. The Chiefs would need to figure out who replaces Okafor in the starting lineup, but they’re well-positioned to move on from Williams. Whatever Kansas City can roll over from their current $11 million and change in cap will also go into their free-agent budget.

With just $145 million committed currently toward 2022, Kansas City should be in much better shape once the cap starts to recover after next year as the NFL presumably rebounds from the pandemic. But there’s one other avenue Kansas City can use to create space

Handle key extensions

Kansas City has four vital players entering their contract year in 2021: TE Travis Kelce, RT Mitchell Schwartz, LT Eric Fisher and S Tyrann Mathieu. Barring a precipitous drop in play, all four are likely to be on the team in 2021 and playing key roles. But all four also represent key decisions for Kansas City on whether they’re worth the investment long-term. 

Kelce will count $9 million against the cap and will be horribly underpaid as soon as 49ers TE George Kittle signs his extension, projected to be anywhere from $13-$16 million a season. While he will turn 32 in 2021, Kelce hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down and tight ends have shown they can remain productive well into their 30s. Elite tight ends are hard to find, so even if they have to pay him $15 million a year it’s probably worth it for the Chiefs to bring Kelce back on a shorter, three-year extension that could still lower his cap hit in 2021. 

While bringing back Kelce should be a relatively easy decision, the Chiefs have a pending dilemma at tackle. Schwartz is one of the best in the NFL and astoundingly underpaid, as tackle salaries have nearly doubled the one-year, $11.25 million extension he signed last summer. Fisher is also probably underpaid even as a mid-tier left tackle as he finishes the four-year, $48 million extension he signed in 2016. Tackles can age well, but Schwartz will be 32 and Fisher 30. If either Niang or Rankin shows promise, the Chiefs could let one of their veteran tackles walk after 2021. Otherwise, they’re looking at around a $30 million a year commitment to keep them both. 

Then there’s Mathieu. The Honey Badger’s presence was invaluable last year and helped set the tone for the Chiefs’ turnaround into a championship-winning defense. But he’ll be 29 in 2021 and count $19.7 million against the cap. Ordinarily that would make him a prime extension candidate, but unlike the other three, Mathieu plays a position where the cliff can come quickly. 2020 is an under-the-radar big year for Mathieu, who has turned in three straight healthy seasons after dealing with injuries earlier in his career. 

With Mahomes in the fold, the Chiefs will be contenders every year for the foreseeable future. But their shopping list at the end of the year likely includes a No. 1 corner, starting receiver, starting center and a few key depth players, particularly on the defensive line. Beyond that, holes at tackle, safety and tight end loom. Until 2022, the draft is likely where those needs will have to be filled. 

Fantasy Corner

We won’t pretend to be high stakes experts here, but occasionally there’s an insight we feel is worth sharing. With the wealth of information available, there are very few true sleepers for fantasy football that exist. However, let me introduce you to Colts RB Nyheim Hines.

The Colts drafted Hines in the fourth round out of N.C. State in 2018 and he made an immediate splash as a rookie with 81 targets, 63 catches, 739 total yards and four touchdowns. In his second year, he languished along with the rest of the Colts’ offense. But Hines stands to benefit tremendously from Indianapolis’ addition of veteran QB Philip Rivers

Rivers loves throwing to running backs. Loves loves loves it. The chart below shows Rivers’ top receiving backs each year with the Chargers. 

Year Player Targets Catches Yards TDs Total RB Targets RB target %
2006 LaDainian Tomlinson 80 56 508 3 109 23.4%
2007 LaDainian Tomlinson 86 60 475 3 120 25.5%
2008 LaDainian Tomlinson 77 52 426 1 139 29.1%
2009 Darren Sproles 57 45 497 4 127 24.5%
2010 Darren Sproles 75 59 520 2 156 28.7%
2011 Mike Tolbert 79 54 433 2 165 28.4%
2012 Ronnie Brown 59 49 371 0 155 29.4%
2013 Danny Woodhead 88 76 605 6 133 24.4%
2014* Branden Oliver 45 36 271 1 109 19.0%
2015* Danny Woodhead 106 80 755 6 171 25.6%
2016 Melvin Gordon 57 41 419 2 106 18.3%
2017 Melvin Gordon 83 58 476 4 132 22.6%
2018 Melvin Gordon 66 50 490 4 141 27.5%
2019 Austin Ekeler 108 92 993 8 182 30.5%

*Colts HC Frank Reich was the offensive coordinator

The biggest takeaway should be the far right column which shows the percentage of pass attempts Rivers targets his running backs. An average year for Rivers is about 25 percent and in some cases it pushes 30. While the Colts have talked about protecting Rivers with their line and run game, they still likely want to pass more than they did in 2019 with Jacoby Brissett. Split the difference between Brissett last year and Andrew Luck in 2018 and you get 580 pass attempts, which means about 145 targets to the running back group. 

Hines has commanded about two-thirds of the Colts’ running back targets his first two seasons, which means in this projection he’s pushing 100 targets. Average out his rate stats and he’s looking at a potential stat line of 75-80 catches for 500-600 yards and a couple of touchdowns. Add in his rushing stats and perhaps a couple of return touchdowns — he had two touchdowns on nine punt returns last year — and you’re looking at a likely top-30 running back who’s being drafted outside the top 50 at his position. 

(As an aside, this probably adds to second-round RB Jonathan Taylor‘s fantasy ceiling as well. While he wasn’t used as a receiver much at Wisconsin, neither was Melvin Gordon.)

Hines probably won’t win you your league in 2020. But he can probably win you a game or two when the season turns into a grind and you need a lift off your bench. That’s worth a dart throw late in the draft. 

This Week In Football

  • The final tally from our 2020 opt-out tracker is 65 players who will be sitting out this year. The Patriots lead all teams with eight opt-outs, while the Browns were also hit with five opt-outs, including three of the five listed guards on the roster. 31 of the players were either offensive or defensive linemen, which is notable given a high BMI is a risk factor for COVID-19. 
  • A number of teams are still looking to bolster the tight end position. The 49ers signed veteran TE Jordan Reed, who also received interest from the Ravens and another team. The 49ers also showed interest in TE Delanie Walker before signing Reed, while the former Titans TE has interest from the Ravens and Patriots. New England potentially offers Walker the biggest role, while Baltimore has the better team and OC Greg Roman
  • The Bills lucked out by signing G Brian Winters following his release from the Jets and landed not only an injury replacement at right guard for Jon Feliciano, but potentially an upgrade at left guard when Feliciano comes back. 
  • Seattle appears to be closing the door on Jadeveon Clowney and pivoting to cheaper options to upgrade their pass rush like DE Everson Griffen or LB Clay Matthews. Reuniting Griffen with his college head coach Pete Carroll makes the most sense for Seattle. 
  • Meanwhile, Clowney’s best bet to maximize his 2020 paycheck might be the Titans, where Vic Beasley is still AWOL (UPDATE: Beasley reported to the team on Friday.)
  • Another handful of star college players opted out of the 2020 college football season and declared for the draft next year, including Minnesota WR Rashod Bateman, Penn State LB Micah Parsons and Miami DE Gregory Rousseau. There’s around another dozen players or so who have secured their draft stock enough as high picks that could consider joining them. 

Nickels & Dimes

Some quick hits to round out this week’s issue: 

Keep in mind at one point this offseason the Chiefs had $177 in cap space, but were still able to work out deals for two star players worth almost $600 million. Cap space limitations often aren’t as bad as teams want you to think. 

As the rest of the division starts chasing the Chiefs, a look at what could have been. 

The Jets have traded five straight first-round picks. 

If you want to see an example of why it’s almost always better to extend players sooner rather than later, Myles Garrett vs Joey Bosa is a tremendous case study. There’s the average value of their new deals, $25 million for Garrett, $27 million for Bosa a few weeks later. But more importantly, Bosa is going into the final year of his rookie deal and will be under contract through 2025, giving the Chargers six years of control at an APY of $25 million. Garrett is under contract with the Browns through 2026 and his APY during that time is only $21.4 million because of the two years still left on his rookie contract. 

Former Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley describing the reasons for his decision to opt out just makes me more resolute that I’ll believe it when I see it when it comes to college football this year…

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