Before Yannick Ngakoue took the field for his first practice on Thursday, there was some business to attend to. He needed the No. 91 jersey.
“That’s how you identify me in this league,” Ngakoue said. “I feel like there’s only one 91 in this era now that can do what I do.”
Jalyn Holmes had switched to No. 91 earlier this year, but he sold the number to the fifth-year pro and adopted No. 90 instead. The cost of the swap?
“I can’t disclose that information,” Ngakoue said, “but not too much.”
Ngakoue’s sight is set on his legacy. He says he’s already thinking about wearing a gold jacket reserved for Hall of Fame inductees, and through four professional seasons he’s on the right track. At age 25, he’s established himself as a bona fide star and may be one of the NFL’s most coveted free agents in 2021 unless he and the Vikings can work out a long-term deal. Those negotiations are for another time, though.
The former Jacksonville Jaguar now plays in Minnesota, a franchise familiar with edge-rushing stardom. They may have one of the few 25-year-old edge rusher more accomplished in today’s NFL than Ngakoue; that’s sixth-year pro Danielle Hunter. Like Ngakoue, Hunter is a former third-round pick who slipped through the cracks in the draft, only to blossom into a star under Andre Patterson’s guidance. He has a year more experience than Ngakoue, but after four seasons, his numbers weren’t much different than Ngakoue’s. Hunter had 40 sacks; Ngakoue has 37.5.
It might be a while before fans get to see Hunter and Ngakoue on the field together with Hunter nursing a mysterious injury that’s kept him out of practice for three weeks. It’s believable, though, that the two could quickly become the league’s most feared defensive end tandem in a league full of elite duos.
“When they talk about edge rushers, we want them to talk about Danielle and Yannick,” Ngakoue said in his first Minnesota press conference. “I’m just glad that we’re on the same team and can push each other each and every day. I’m pretty sure our friendship will build as time goes on.”
The initial acclimation will put Ngakoue to the test. He has just over a week to get in game shape after holding out this offseason, and he’ll have to learn a new system where he’s asked to put his hand in the ground after acting as a stand-up rusher in 2018-19. Head coach Mike Zimmer said Friday the walkthroughs are helping for Ngakoue’s learning process but they won’t “force feed” him every detail of the defense in the first few days.
It didn’t take Ngakoue long to make an impact in the NFL, recording eight sacks and four forced fumbles as a rookie. He’ll strive for a similar immediate impact in Minnesota. Hard work, he explained, is the source of his success
“Nothing was giving to me as a kid all the way to now,” Ngakoue said. “I have to work for everything that I’ve obtained. So just a consistent work ethic, the grind and that faith have helped me become a quality player in this league.”
The Vikings have never been afraid to trust their coaches to develop young edge rushers, but with Ngakoue, they inherit someone eager to make noise now.
“You’re always looking for as many pass rushers as you can get,” Patterson said. “You can never have too many guys that can rush the passer.”