The Jaguars only have one impending unrestricted free agent that will require a major deal to retain.
You may have heard of him. His name is Yannick Ngakoue.
That star pass rusher has tallied 37.5 sacks and 243 QB pressures throughout his first four years in the league. He's also contributed 122 tackles, 14 forced fumbles, nine passes defended, three fumble recoveries, two interceptions, and a touchdown. Not too shabby. His most impressive season as a pro came in 2017 when the Jaguars' defense was as good as they come. Since then, Ngakoue has still been a tireless pass rusher, but he hasn't eclipsed the ten sack mark over the last two seasons. A big reason for that is he was essentially playing on one leg for the first month or so of the 2019 season. Still, his presence has been undeniable for the Jaguars.
Now, the Jaguars are faced with a monumental decision. Yannick Ngakoue's rookie contract has expired, and he will become an unrestricted free agent on March 18th.
Dave Caldwell and company have four options. They can agree to a long term deal, place a non-exclusive franchise tag on Yan, place an exclusive franchise tag on him, or give him the transition tag.
The non-exclusive franchise tag is the most commonly used of the tag tools that the NFL has in place. This option would mean the Jaguars would offer a one year tender to Yannick, in which he would get paid the average of the top five highest-paid players at his position. Ngakoue would then be able to negotiate with other teams on a new deal, but the Jaguars would have the right to match that deal or receive two first-round picks in exchange for Ngakoue if he signs with another team.
The Jaguars could also use the exclusive franchise tag. This is a one-year tender offer that would pay Ngakoue the same amount as the non-exclusive franchise tag, but he would not be allowed to negotiate with another team. He would have to sign the tender offer or not play football in 2020.
Finally, the Jaguars could use the transition tag. This is also a one-year tender offer. If Ngakoue were to sign the transition tag (he wouldn't), the Jaguars would pay him the average of the top ten highest-paid defensive ends in football. He would be allowed to negotiate with other teams, and the Jaguars would still be permitted to match any deal that Ngakoue would be offered. But if the Jaguars elected not to match the offer, they would get no compensation.
If the Jaguars are unable to ink Yan to a long term deal, I suspect they'll use the non-exclusive franchise tag, because it seems unlikely that a team would agree to give up two first-round picks for Ngakoue. If the Jaguars do end using a tag, they'll need to do so prior to 4 pm on March 10th.
But this all leads me to my point. If the Jaguars do ultimately want to keep Ngakoue around long term, they'll need to do right by him and offer him a fair contract. Dave Caldwell has publicly stated on multiple occasions that re-signing Ngakoue is the team's number one focus right now.
What would a "fair" contract look like? Well, in my estimation, it would be one similar to what Frank Clark got from the Chiefs last offseason. The two players have had similar production on the field throughout their respective careers. It could be argued that Clark is a better run defender, but the two players are of the same class. Because Ngakoue is younger, and it's a year later, I actually think he'll be looking for a little bit more than Clark. Clark got a 5-year deal worth $20.8M per season with $62.3M in total guarantees and $43.8M fully guaranteed.
Yan should get just a bit more than that, but not quite as much as DeMarcus Lawrence, whose production far exceeded Ngakoue's in the final two years of their rookie contracts.
My final numbers for this deal would be five years at $20.9M per season, with $64M guaranteed and $45M fully guaranteed. Ngakoue and his representation will likely want to push to be the highest-paid at his position, but he doesn't really deserve to set the market. I believe becoming the second-highest-paid defensive end in football will get Ngakoue back to Duval long term.
The good news here would obviously be that the Jaguars get to retain one of the best young pass rushers in the game. But before you go all "how in the world can the Jaguars afford to do that?" on me, it's really rather simple. In year one, most of his salary would come in the form of a signing bonus. That signing bonus wouldn't count against the cap in 2020 but would be prorated over the course of the contract. So, if Yan's 2020 salary is $25M, the Jaguars could give him a signing bonus of around $15M, which would reduce his 2020 salary cap hit to a much more palatable $10M.
The Jaguars should do their best to retain Ngakoue long term, even if it means offering a little bit more than the deal I outlined above. The recently concluded NFL playoffs illuminated the importance of having a relentless pass rush. Having Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell, and Josh Allen at their disposal in 2020 would give the Jaguars a fighting chance to become an elite pass-rushing team once again.
Don't forget, with the ever-rising salary cap, Ngakoue's contract would look more team-friendly after every season. That's the nature of the modern NFL.
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