As they do at the end of each season, the Ravens’ top decision makers will gather soon — most likely virtually this year, rather than at owner Steve Bisciotti’s Florida home — to assess the roster and whether certain players might fit in the organization going forward.
One of the most intriguing subjects is likely to be edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue, the Maryland native and former Terps star who was acquired in a midseason trade to bolster the pass rush and is scheduled to become a free agent in March.
Did the Ravens see enough from Ngakoue in an 11-game audition to pay him the going rate for elite edge rushers? Did they see enough to know that they shouldn’t?
Ngakoue would seem to check a lot of boxes for the Ravens: He is an established, destructive pass rusher who turns just 26 in March and plays a position of need, especially given the Ravens’ roster situation; fellow outside linebackers Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser all are slated to hit free agency this spring.
Ngakoue, though, failed to make as big an impact as the Ravens hoped when they sent a 2021 third-round pick and a 2022 conditional fifth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings to acquire him in mid-October. If they don’t re-sign him, general manager Eric DeCosta would have to chalk Ngakoue up as a fairly high-priced, low-impact, half-year rental.
In 11 games with the Ravens, including two postseason games, the 6-foot-2, 246-pound Ngakoue totaled three sacks and 22 tackles. He did not hit the stat sheet in either postseason game on a total of 41 snaps.
Including his six games with the Vikings, Ngakoue finished the season with 23 tackles, eight sacks, four forced fumbles and 10 quarterback hits. Pro Football Focus ranked him the 39th-best edge defender, 22nd against the pass.
In terms of evaluating Ngakoue’s impact, head coach John Harbaugh said, “It was only the second half of the season, so I don’t think you can really judge it based on what you saw.”
Harbaugh implied that Ngakoue’s role was relatively limited joining the team midseason, and a full offseason would change that.
“I love the guy, and he wants to contribute,” Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference. “We had a unique situation here with all the outside ‘backers we had. So, going forward, if he chooses, and we work it out and he’s here, it’ll be a little different. … He’ll be here from the beginning, and he’ll be starting, and he’ll get a lot more snaps than he got this year.”
But can the Ravens afford for that to happen? That could be the $20 million question.
Ngakoue was reportedly seeking at least that much in annual value in a long-term extension with the Jaguars before they traded him to the Vikings, and Harbaugh said the Ravens expect to be in tenuous cap position again this year with an expected drop in the overall cap because of revenue losses from the coronavirus pandemic.
Because Ngakoue was technically still under the franchise tag after being traded, the Ravens were prohibited from negotiating any contract extension during the season. They do have the option of using the franchise tag on him, which would likely cost in the neighborhood of $15 million given the expected drop in cap numbers and Ngakoue’s renegotiated $12 million deal with the Vikings.
There is also the question of whether the Ravens would try to make another play to sign Judon to a long-term extension. The sides never reached an agreement last year before they gave Judon the franchise tag, which ended up being worth $16.8 million (the midpoint between the franchise-tag values for outside linebackers and defensive ends).
It’s almost certain the Ravens can’t sign both, and there’s a chance they won’t sign either. Judon would command roughly $20 million on a second franchise tag, and he is thought to be looking for a long-term contract with average annual value in that neighborhood.
Ngakoue has the greater pass-rush pedigree, with 45.5 career sacks and at least eight in all five of his NFL seasons. Judon, two years older, has 34.5 career sacks and has topped eight sacks just twice in five seasons. Judon, though, has proved to be an astute run defender who will occasionally drop in coverage. He is a three-down player who has also become a leader in the Ravens’ locker room.
As with many of these decisions, it becomes a question of value vs. cost for DeCosta, Harbaugh, and, ultimately, Bisciotti, who writes the checks. Every team is going to be looking at dramatically tighter finances this year because of the pandemic. Instead of the steady rise that teams have grown accustomed to, most projections anticipate the salary cap will drop, possibly by more than 10 percent.
“It’s such an unpredictable year with the salary cap,” Harbaugh said. “What is anybody going to get paid? And who has cap money?”
Ngakoue met with the media just a couple of times after coming to the Ravens, and when asked after his trade whether he envisioned staying in Baltimore long term, he said simply, “If it’s meant for me to be here for a long time, then that’s what it is.”
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