It's not exactly a ringing endorsement of what’s going on with the Jacksonville Jaguars when two of the best players in franchise history don’t want to stick around.
After learning the Jaguars planned to use their franchise tag on him, Ngakoue tweeted Monday morning his time in Jacksonville is over. Losing the defensive end wouldn't do anything to help the fortunes of coach Doug Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell, either.
They are essentially on a one-year trial in 2020, and while owner Shad Khan hasn’t given any specific expectations, it’s safe to assume the Jaguars had better at least be fighting for a playoff spot or Khan will make the changes many thought he should have made in December.
“I know things change greatly year to year, but we’ve been closer [to the Super Bowl] more recently than many teams in the league,” Khan said last Tuesday, the day the Jaguars announced a second home game in London in 2020. “My feeling is that we can return to that place and go much faster to where we want to be if we can keep some things intact for 2020. We have a really good core of young players from our recent drafts. We have excellent draft capital. The message to the whole football organization as I met with them after our season was over is the time to win is now. We have everything really in place with some of the changes to expect a good season.”
Not everything, if Ngakoue gets his wish. And it’s likely the Jaguars won’t have him in uniform even if they decide to play hardball, use the franchise tag, and tell him, “You play in Jacksonville this year or you don’t play at all.” He would almost certainly hold out in as Le'Veon Bell did during his negotiations with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2018, when he sat for the entire season. Ngakoue indicated late last season he wouldn’t be willing to play on the franchise tag, which would pay him approximately $19.3 million. So it's likely the Jaguars will be entertaining trade offers for a player who has averaged more than nine sacks in his first four NFL seasons.
Linebacker Josh Allen led the team with 10.5 sacks and was a Pro Bowl selection as a rookie last season despite coming off the bench, but the team declined the option on defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and defensive end Calais Campbell turns 34 in September. Ngakoue got off to a slow start last season because of a hamstring injury but closed strong, with six of his eight sacks and three of his four forced fumbles coming in the final nine games. Where can the Jaguars find that kind of production?
It's unlikely to come from a rookie. Allen is one of 16 players to record at least eight sacks as a rookie over the past 10 seasons. Only seven players have done it since 2017. Ngakoue had eight as a rookie in 2016.
By the way, here’s a list of the quarterbacks the Jaguars will be facing in 2020: Deshaun Watson (twice), Ben Roethlisberger, Lamar Jackson, Mitchell Trubisky, Matthew Stafford, Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers. And there's a chance Philip Rivers could sign with the Colts and Tom Brady could sign with the Titans. They would be on the schedule twice each.
There is still time for Ngakoue to change his mind and be receptive to a long-term contract offer from the Jaguars (in the range of $22 million annually), but even in that unlikely event, it doesn’t erase Jacksonville's culture problem.
Ramsey’s issues with the franchise are well-documented, and he eventually forced a trade last season after a meeting with Khan that left the owner optimistic the team could repair its relationship with the disgruntled cornerback. Ramsey had issues with the entire front office -- but former executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin was at the forefront.
It appears Coughlin played a large role in Ngakoue’s unhappiness with the franchise, too. Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer reported Coughlin cut off negotiations with Ngakoue’s camp roughly a month after they started in early July, saying the team had made its final and best offer. That led to Ngakoue’s 11-day training camp holdout and he ended up playing out the final year of his rookie contract for $2.02 million.
But it’s not fair to place all the blame on Coughlin. Even when the Jaguars were winning in 2017, there were issues. The defense’s trash-talking and brash attitudes rubbed some players the wrong way and there was blatant disrespect of the coaches. (Ramsey, Davon House and Tashaun Gipson openly questioned defensive coordinator Todd Wash and Ramsey advocated for a sweeping change.) The on-field discipline also has been an issue: The Jaguars have more penalty yards than all but one team since 2017 began and were second and third in that category the last two seasons.
Quarterback Nick Foles drew a lot of heat from the fan base when he talked about continuing to establish the team’s culture when he returned from his broken collarbone in November. It looks like he was on to something.
There's a lot for Marrone and Caldwell to solve in one make-or-break season, and now they likely won’t have one of their best players in Ngakoue -- who is a tireless worker with a burning desire to be great -- to help them do it.
The running joke over the past five or six years is that the Jaguars have won the offseason and struggled when the games began. This offseason isn’t off to a good start.