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View from the O-Zone: A most underrated player


JACKSONVILLE – Yannick Ngakoue says it doesn't much bother him.

Maybe it doesn't, but maybe it should – and the lack of recognition that for whatever reason is a storyline around Ngakoue entering his second NFL season absolutely would bother many players. But know this about the Jaguars' sacks leader a year ago:

He may be the team's best overlooked player.

And he may be its most underrated player, which in turn may be the most unfair storyline around this team as 2017 Training Camp begins.

Is he the Jaguars' best young player? Maybe, or maybe it's Jalen Ramsey, or Allen Robinson – if indeed Robinson is still "young" – but Ngakoue belongs in the conversation.

Yet, somehow he's not. Not often enough. At least not yet.

Ngakoue was asked about this Tuesday. He laughed.

"It doesn't matter," Ngakoue said after Day 5 of '17 camp on the practice fields adjacent to EverBank Field. "I let my pads talk."

Maybe it really bothers him or maybe it doesn't, but what he said about letting his pads talk?

That much is certain.

Ngakoue set a Jaguars rookie record last season with a team-high eight sacks. He started early as the team's best pass rusher, and stayed that way throughout the season, earning the starting weak-side end job in Week 2 and turning in a remarkably consistent rookie season.

Was he elite? Not yet. But he was good enough to make you think eight sacks were far from a fluke. And he seems more than mature enough – and seems to have more than a professional enough approach – to make you think becoming a perennial double-digit sacks guy is possible and even probable.

Ngakoue, a third-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft from the University of Maryland, entered the NFL with advanced pass-rush skills for a rookie. Coaches last year praised his motor, and lauded his technique and ability to use his hands. Those are oft-overlooked traits for a pass rusher, and they're rare skills for a young player.

Ngakoue said he spent the offseason further honing those areas.

The result?

A young player with a lot of confidence as his second training camp begins.

"I'm feeling great," Ngakoue said. "Going into Year Two, the game's slowing down a lot for me. I'm looking forward to preseason and the rest of the camp."

Ngakoue said the offseason made him a better player "all around."

"I'm staying lower, with better pad level, and tighter hands," he said. "I feel like that was very key in me becoming a better player. I feel like that's where I really worked and got better."

That's good news for the Jaguars, because they need that to be true. This defense was a good last season, and it appears at minimum better than last season. Safety, cornerback, linebacker, defensive tackle, strong-side end … all positions appear to have solid and even front-line starters.

The secondary in particular, with the addition of unrestricted free-agent cornerback A.J. Bouye opposite Ramsey, appears to be a team strength.

The lone question many have about the defense? Edge rusher.

It's not that the team doesn't have talent there. There is talent and a ton of potential. What it lacks entering the season is a proven, elite, lock-down edge rusher.

Many incorrectly believe that player must be Dante Fowler Jr., the No. 3 overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft and a player with as much physical ability as anyone on the Jaguars' defense. When many national media talk about the Jaguars' edge rushers, the conversation begins and sometimes ends with Fowler.

That's not fair. Not that the unfairness bothers Ngakoue.

"Attention doesn't really matter," Ngakoue said. "If I know I did what I had to do, that's what matters. It's going to come. When you make plays, stuff will come like that."

Fair or not, to talk about Jaguars edge rushers and include only Fowler is not an accurate gauge of the position. An accurate, fair gauge of the position must not only include Ngakoue, it must refer to him as a player with a bright future with the potential to turn games – and to perhaps be elite.

A pass rusher with his fundamentals is relatively rare at his age, and all indications are he has the work ethic, drive and desire to do the work necessary to move from being a very good rookie to a next-level player early in his career.

The thought here is that he can do that.

And if he does, the most unfair storyline around the Jaguars won't be a storyline much longer – and the recognition he probably already deserves will come soon enough.

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