It’s quiet on the club level of TIAA Bank Field. Eerie quiet. Almost nobody is here on a summer day in Jacksonville, Florida, as a mountain of a man takes a seat at a vacant table and gazes out a window to the football field below. No janitors pass through the room, no players dot the field.
Yannick Ngakoue takes in the serenity, this calm before the storm.
He knows it won’t last. He won’t let it.
Soon, Ngakoue will fill the air with noise. Lots of noise.
His plans are loud. The Jaguars third-year edge-rusher will dominate that field below in a way seldom seen in the NFL. He will serve as the tip of the spear on a violent, ill-tempered defense that goes down as one of the best ever.
Don’t know his name? He’s fine with that—for now.
Like the silence in this stadium, it won’t last. He’ll talk smack. Quarterbacks will whimper. In Duval County and beyond, his fame will erupt.
Maybe that it hasn’t already is just a matter of people not knowing how to say his damn name, Ngakoue ponders.
It’s easy to see vowels and consonants mashed together in an unfamiliar way on Twitter and just keep scrolling. To not even bother Googling the pronunciation. For the record, it is yah-NEEK in-GAH-kway. “People will figure it out,” he says, and then the smile on his face morphs into a scowl. His tone changes.
“Not enough people know that No. 91 for the Jaguars is the top edge-rusher in this league,” he continues. “I am the best. I am the best pass-rusher in this league. I’m No. 1 at what I do. Definitely.”
Which, naturally, invites you to lob names at him. Many an edge-rusher would absolutely take issue with this proclamation, starting with the NFL’s new 141 Million Dollar Man, Khalil Ma…
Ngakoue interrupts. Shakes his head. Throws down the gauntlet. There is no need to bring up any other name, period.
“I’m No. 1. I don’t care about any other guy. That’s how I feel. I know what I can do. I feel like I’ve shown that these past two seasons. And this third one is going to be crazy.”
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
So cash those checks, Khalil Mack. Polish that ring, Von Miller. Enjoy your comeback tour, J.J. Watt.
In his book, you are all inferior.
And if he’s right, if 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles in his first two seasons were only a teaser of things to come, these 2018 Jaguars could be mentioned in the same breath as the ’85 Bears and the ’00 Ravens. Such immortality, in this building, is a realistic goal.
Ngakoue doesn’t fidget or hesitate or qualify bravado, ever. When he tells someone he’s going to do something, he just gets to work doing it.
Like when he was a kid and told friends he’d play in the NFL one day so his mother could have a better life. Or when he vowed to shatter Maryland’s sack record. Or when he simply nodded to friends after being drafted 69th overall in 2016, as if to promise right then he was about to make the league pay for its sins.
He’s checked every box so far. And here he is, at 23 years old, promising you’ll all soon realize he is No. 1. Starting this Sunday, with an AFC title rematch against the Patriots.
Ngakoue stares out toward the field, where he hopes to make Tom Brady’s life a living hell. He’s a 6’2″, 238-pound ticking time bomb with a fuse burning closer and closer to what everyone around him believes is an inevitable explosion.
Don’t say he didn’t warn you.
In other locker rooms around the NFL, Ngakoue’s boast will be dismissed as another diss track from the Jalen Ramsey mixtape. As nonsense. And no doubt, inside the Jaguars locker room, the proud veterans who’ve heard it all will roll their eyes and vow to pull the reins on their young buck.
The bluster. The nerve. Contending teams always take a fire extinguisher to such unnecessary pontification.
If anyone will keep it real in this room, it’d be Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and their 18 combined years of experience on the defensive line. Vets who have no need to masquerade as hype men.
Upon hearing those four words from Ngakoue—”I am the best”—Campbell admits he’s hesitant to put too much pressure on his mentee, takes a deep breath as if he’s about to go into full Mr. Belding mode…and then cannot help himself.
“He’s the kind of guy who could break the sack record,” Campbell says. “I don’t know if it’s going to be this year or two or three years down the road or five years down the road, but he’s a guy I expect to break it one day. That’s a big statement. But he has that kind of ability.
“He has the potential to be one of the best of all time.”
If there were a 2016 draft do-over, Campbell adds, he would be every team’s first pick.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Surely, Jackson will sound the alarms. He played alongside Von Miller on the Broncos‘ Super Bowl 50 team. He recovered the fumble that Miller, the game’s MVP, forced. Using Ngakoue’s name in the same sentence is, presumably, blasphemous.
“I definitely think he’s a young Von Miller,” Jackson says. “The only thing that’s different, to be honest with you, is Von went first round, and he was lower. So he has a bigger chip on his shoulder. Not to say Von doesn’t feel like he has to prove anything—he works to prove everybody wrong and keep proving everybody right.
“But Yann is always pushing and always feels like he has something to prove.”
There’s no secret to it. Ngakoue operates “at 100 mph” every second of every day, Campbell says. As his mentor, Campbell has actually been trying to get Ngakoue to slow down and relax once in a while.
In the extremely rare case he loses a rep in practice, Ngakoue will come back with a vengeance. And his constant yapping has a unique way of getting inside opponents’ heads. Campbell sees it on film all the time. As the game progresses, linemen start getting skittish in their drops.
To Campbell, it’s “an art.”
“He’s letting them boys know,” Campbell says, “they can’t touch him.”
Adds Jackson: “He’s definitely going to let you know. Let everybody know.”
Because at his core, Ngakoue feels grossly disrespected. The disrespect may be real; it may be manufactured. Either way, he feeds off it. Those around Ngakoue say it is what forever fuels him—that sensation of being wronged.
He was a 4-star recruit…and he was still pissed Alabama never showed interest. He made the Pro Bowl last year…and he’s still pissed it took “alternate” status to get there. His peers voted him the 88th-best player on NFL Network’s “Top 100” list…and he was genuinely pissed he wasn’t higher.
He needs to be eternally agitated. As Aazaar Abdul-Rahim, his high school coach at Friendship Collegiate Academy, a charter high school in one of the roughest pockets of D.C., explains it, he’s always waiting “for you to say what he can’t do.”
In that way, the draft-day snub has been a constant fuel so far in his career. A constant reminder that teams thought he’d wilt away at defensive end in the pros. That they deemed him too small.
Campbell has been around long enough to know that if you’re not a first-round pick in this league, it can take years to generate legitimate mainstream buzz. But this year, Year 3, he expects Ngakoue to be “discovered.”
“This year,” he assures, “everybody’s going to know who he is.”
Logan Bowles/Getty Images
Yet through their lavish praise, both Campbell and Jackson manage to give their teammate a reason to twitch in anger, as well. Asked if Ngakoue is the league’s best pass-rusher, right now, both players hem and haw and refuse to do so. They tap the brakes. They bring up Miller and Mack.
“You can’t disrespect the other guys who have been doing it for a good while,” Jackson says, “and put them behind him.”
Which is probably all Ngakoue needs to hear.
Back at the club level, the infectious smile plastered across Ngakoue’s face fades. The topic? The 2016 NFL draft. He’s trying to remember every pass-rusher taken ahead of him, and he can’t stop shaking his head.
With each name, disgust builds.
“Let’s think about it,” he begins. “Joey Bosa. Leonard Floyd. Did Nassib get drafted ahead of me?” Yes, Carl Nassib went to Cleveland at 65. “He did? Pshh. Nassib. You know what’s crazy? I don’t know a lot of guys’ names, because I don’t hear their names anymore. Who was the guy from the Ravens taken ahead of me?” Kamalei Correa at 42. “Yeah! He got taken ahead of me. My hometown team.”
Indeed. That one hurt, because Ngakoue destroyed his predraft workout with the Ravens. “Murdered it,” he says. “Right in front of the head coach, [John] Harbaugh. Murdered it.”
Nassib has since been cut and signed by the Bucs. Correa, traded.
There was Kevin Dodd, at No. 33, who was released this July and remains unsigned. That one’s news to Ngakoue, whose eyes nearly bug out of their sockets. “He got cut?!” As he listens to all the other names—Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah and Noah Spence and Jihad Ward—Ngakoue scoots back in his chair, cringes and throws up his arms.
“I must be garbage,” he says. “I must be trash if all these guys were taken ahead of me. I must really be trash.”
All 32 teams obviously failed to appreciate what was driving Ngakoue, what he calls his personal “formula.”
He won’t come out and detail the formula verbatim—”I can’t give it all away!”—but its integral ingredients do seem to crystallize in conversation. There’s a heavy dose of vengeance. A dash of Lawrence Taylor. One specific pass-rushing move. A mother, a lost friend and, above all, a temperament. It all sharpens opinions and dreams into cold, hard, indisputable facts.
Each experience, each person, each tactic feeds him. This is why he declares himself the best without reservation.
His high school. Friendship was positioned “east of the river,” right in the D.C. crossfire. Gang members loitered around the school’s perimeter, and the patch of dirt the football team used as a practice field—affectionately called “Friendship Beach“—often needed to be cleared of needles before use. Once, shortly before practice began, a player alerted the head coach, Abdul-Rahim, of a horrific site on the field: a teenager, dead, with five bullets in his head.
Ngakoue himself remembers bullets scattered on sidewalks, fights breaking out all the time, “typical D.C.” stuff. At Friendship, there was no middle ground. As Jermaine Carter, one of Ngakoue’s best friends from high school (and now a linebacker for the Panthers), says, you were either the bully or the bullied.
“He was definitely a guy that nobody messed with,” Carter says. “He wasn’t going to take nothing. He was always going to be right at you. If you came at him—no matter what—he was going to come right back at you.”
This mentality seeped onto the field, where Carter never saw Ngakoue back down, never saw him lose a fight.
“Not taking s–t from anyone,” Carter says. “That’s the type of attitude you have to have growing up in Washington, D.C.”
Adds Ngakoue, “If you’re not tough, you can get walked over easily.”
The powerhouse Abdul-Rahim built was an extension of this environment, too. His brutal discipline meshed with unconditional love to channel his players’ survival instincts into good, into 20-plus college scholarships per year. Now an assistant at Maryland, Abdul-Rahim says the charter school itself was built on not allowing anyone to have excuses. They didn’t have a locker room? Tough. They didn’t have a home field? Too bad. Most players didn’t have fathers in their lives? No excuse.
Ngakoue, he repeats, epitomized this resolve.
His mother. Dad was unreliable at best, nonexistent at worst. Dad once forgot to pick up Ngakoue from school in third grade, forcing him and his brother to walk home several miles through the inner city. Ngakoue remembers the principal nearly calling child protective services. No, he doesn’t have a relationship with Dad today. Mom, though, was another story.
Born in Martinique, a small island in the West Indies, Marlene Chantelly went to college in France, moved to the states at 22 and worked nonstop as a naval nurse at a military hospital to support the family. She’d wake up at 4 a.m., catch a train and work from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. And on Fridays, Ngakoue says while banging the table with an index finger, she’d also work the night shift from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., catch her breath for a few hours, then head right back at 3 p.m. Saturday and work into Sunday morning.
That’s why, when teammates complain that Jacksonville coach Doug Marrone’s training camps are straight out of the ’70s, Ngakoue doesn’t say a word. He works.
John Raoux/Associated Press
Marquese. Ngakoue lifts up a shirt sleeve and points to a tattoo on his arm, to the halo with a name of a friend. For years, Ngakoue and Marquese Meadow made a vow to take over the NFL. Together. On the field, they won a state title at Friendship. Off it, Meadow would put Ngakoue in stitches. Known as “Skinny Fatz” for his impeccable fashion sense, Meadow’s magnetic personality lit up every room.
Then Meadow headed to Morgan State, Ngakoue to Maryland, and they never saw each other again.
During preseason training, in August 2014, Meadow died of heatstroke. According to a lawsuit filed by the family, Meadow’s temperature had hit 106.6 degrees by the time he reached the hospital. He suffered from liver failure, kidney failure and brain damage and, after one final seizure, was gone at only 18 years old. The news hit Ngakoue hard. As Abdul-Rahim explains, it was especially traumatic for Ngakoue because he was such an introvert then. Abdul-Rahim worried Ngakoue might release his pent-up emotions the wrong way.
Instead, Ngakoue knew right then he needed to live two dreams at once.
“We talked about being great,” he says. “I just feel like I have to keep going with what we said.”
His bark. At 15, Ngakoue played violent games of pickup ball against 22- and 23-year-olds in the snow. He was always the running back, ducking the crown of his head to ram directly through grown adults. “Killing ’em! Killing ’em!”
Now, as an undersized defensive end, that’s the same spirit he believes must drive his play.
“I’m a different cat. I have to bring some type of bark with me,” he says. “When you turn on the tape, and you see all four guys, you don’t see No. 91 getting pushed back.”
Turn on the tape, and you’ll also see Ngakoue yammering away like a boxer with Don King behind him. He tells everyone who’ll listen “You can’t stop me!” kindly informs them he’s the best and, of course, goes for the kill with plenty of NSFW language. Oh, there’s collateral damage. Like the fight he got into with teammate Dante Fowler Jr. this year in training camp. (He won’t go there.)
But it’s who he is. Emotions spill out onto the field for Ngakoue. Always have.
“When I step on the field, for some reason, everything I went through in my life is on my sleeve,” Ngakoue says.
Logan Bowles/Getty Images
His bite. Rather than flood his brain with a server’s worth of moves and countermoves, Ngakoue demoralizes linemen with this simple yet devastating maneuver. The “cross-chop.”
This is how Ngakoue can set that sack record, by swatting away a tackle’s inside hand before then using his outside hand to “chop” around the tackle’s outside shoulder. College teammate Quinton Jefferson, now a D-tackle with the Seahawks, still watches him do it in wonder. As soon as Ngakoue stepped on the Maryland campus, Jefferson knew he had it. And it included this scientific dissection of a pass-rushing move everyone knows but few master.
“It’s damn near unblockable,” Jefferson says. “I’ve watched a lot of guys do it, but nobody does it like him.”
And once Ngakoue gets to the QB, he’s punching the ball out. At the tail end of his record-setting 13.5-sack season at Maryland, Ngakoue finally listened to his position coach, Chad Wilt, who had been shouting all year for him to “Go for the ball!” He forced a fumble against Indiana and has not stopped since. Now, Ngakoue admits he often doesn’t even try to tackle quarterbacks, instead beelining directly to the football.
Lawrence Taylor. Ngakoue believes you are what you eat and that if he watches film of a player long enough, that player’s game will become his game. So Ngakoue obsesses over the all-time greats for hours on end. Especially the gold standard: L.T.
As a kid, he’d watch America’s Game over cartoons. As an adult, he dissects every YouTube clip he can find.
“I just want to be relentless,” Ngakoue says. “I want to be a player who, every time the tape is on and the ball is on the opposite side of the field, I’m still showing up. That’s greatness. That’s what L.T. did. …
“You’ve got to be nasty to play on the defensive line. Have you ever watched L.T. play? Did you see when the running back would go the other way and how he’d chase all the way down that line? When that offensive lineman does a down block, he’d just chase down and hit the running back as hard as he could. By doing that, you’re imposing your will and intimidating people.
“He was crazy. I know he was crazy. You’ve got to be a little crazy to play this game.”
As Ngakoue sits here, trying to figure out how teams could ever deem the Nassibs and Dodds and Correas better than him, his own version of “crazy” nearly bursts out of him. A look that suggests he might cross-chop this table and storm down to the field this second.
Abdul-Rahim remembers this look. Everyone who’s ever ticked off Ngakoue does. One day at Friendship, when the coach pushed…and pushed…and pushed players through a brutal series of up-downs and pushups as punishment, he ripped Ngakoue for easing into his plank position and, in return, Ngakoue shot him the deadliest of death stares imaginable.
A glare Abdul-Rahim will never forget for the rest of his life.
“Mugging me out,” he says. “Giving me the worst look you can get. I’m just thinking to myself, Man, either this dude is crazy or…or…I didn’t know what to think. I’m glad he stayed down. It looked like he really wanted to hurt me. He gave me a look like I was not one of his friends. I was an enemy. I did something really cruel to someone he truly loves.”
Which is precisely, today, how Ngakoue wants every offensive tackle and every quarterback to feel when they look into his eyes on the field.
Strike this fear in opponents, and the formula is working to perfection.
The formula tends to completely dominate Ngakoue’s life. He rarely decelerates out of 100 mph, which is why Campbell tells him that he needs to, occasionally, step away from the game.
Ngakoue wants to play for 19 seasons, like the NFL’s all-time sack king Bruce Smith. To get there, even he knows he must slow down. So in addition to bingeing highlights of L.T. and “Mean” Joe Greene and Ronnie Lott, Ngakoue binges Game of Thrones. He finds inspiration in it, too. He related instantly to Jon Snow. The disrespected bastard son banished to the Wall. The character who slays foe…after foe…after foe to gradually gain a legion of believers. Who becomes the “King of the North.” Who could be on his way to even greater heights.
“Jon Snow doesn’t care who it is,” Ngakoue says. “He’s going to fight.”
Logan Bowles/Getty Images
So here Ngakoue is, in Year 3, stepping into his own Battle of the Bastards fight for respect. He’s practically drawing a sword in front of thousands of oncoming soldiers in today’s NFL, too. Every rule seems to be stacked against a throwback like him—and he could not care less. The NFL’s new helmet rule? Not an issue. “I try to impose my will with you seeing me. I want you to see me.” The asinine rule penalizing defenders for landing on quarterbacks after a sack? No sweat. “I’m just going to get the ball out.”
So it doesn’t matter that everyone keeps butchering his name—that ESPN’s Mike Greenberg called him “n-GOO-way” last week—because it’s his destiny to take the throne. Those who know the real Ngakoue know he’s about to go off.
In Seattle, Jefferson can’t help but chuckle at the embarrassment of riches on the Jags defensive line, saying it’s a group that hunts. It’s “open season,” and if any tackle tries to overplay Ngakoue’s cross-chop, they’re only falling into a trap. In Maryland, Abdul-Rahim promises Ngakoue will never stop working because he knows no alternative.
In Carolina, Carter predicts Ngakoue will lead the NFL in sacks.
In Jacksonville, Campbell believes Ngakoue will make you remember the name.
“He feels like the whole NFL slept on him. He’s right,” Campbell says. “He’s a guy you can build a team around.”
Eventually, Ngakoue does use other pass-rushers by their names. Turns out, he actually looks up to Von Miller as a big brother. He used to rip through clips of Miller before his high school games. So when Miller approached Ngakoue at the Pro Bowl and told him that he admired his game, it was a huge honor. The two then hung out at the NBA All-Star Game.
Moments later, Ngakoue even gives love to one of his 2016 classmates. Joey Bosa, he admits, “is doing his thing.”
But then, his praise cuts short. He leans forward, and it feels like the AC in this room has suddenly shut off.
He repeats the same message one last time. Louder, in case you didn’t hear him the first time.
“I am the best. I’m the best at what I do.”
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.