Don’t spend any time worrying about Yannick Ngakoue not coming to the mini-camp. I can tell you this: the players don’t care.
They all know this is the business part of the season and running around in his “pajamas,” as Head Coach Doug Marrone likes to say, isn’t going to make a bit of difference for Ngakoue. His teammates aren’t worried. He’s said he’s playing during the regular season and if he shows up for the first game and can help them win, they’re good with that.
The Jaguars will sign him to a new deal, and next year they’ll do the same with Jalen Ramsey.
Because they have to.
Those are the players, along with Nick Foles, who will be the leaders, the tone setters for the Jaguars in the future.
It’s always been kind of interesting that professional sports seems to be the only profession where what you signed for doesn’t matter in the last couple of years of your deal. Pro football is a little unique because of the possibility of injury and the former lack of guaranteed money. In most professions a contract is in force until the end. But pro sports is a little different. The players are athletes and entertainers. Nobody cares these days about how much money they’re making. The day of screaming headlines about tens or hundreds of millions being paid to players are gone. Everybody’s making money from the owners on down. How much doesn’t matter.
In a negotiation, both sides have a responsibility. The player has to perform and bring to the table realistic numbers for what he thinks he’s worth. The team has to recognize that and be prepared to pay a player and fit it into their salary cap equation. It’s not as if they don’t have the money. As well as a salary cap, there’s a salary floor every team has to meet. It keeps teams from tanking and just putting money in the owner’s pocket.
Besides the injuries, what’s the difference between 2017 and 2018?
It was obvious from the beginning that the locker room was different last year. Even the now departed Dante Fowler noted that the team rested on their laurels. The departures of Paul Posluszny and Marcedes Lewis, and the personal issues of Telvin Smith left a leadership void.
Blake Bortles’ struggles without much help around him sowed discontent between the offense and defense. Calais Campbell saw it coming, holding two “players only” meetings in the first four weeks of the season. And that’s when they were 3-1 with a win over the Patriots. He had to hold Ngakoue back from attacking his own teammates after the home loss to Houston.
Leadership has to evolve on any professional sports team. It has to come from the top players whom their teammates respect. The only player who fit that bill last year was Campbell.
This year, Ngakoue has said he wants to be a team captain. He warrants that based on his production and how he’s matured as a player. And the Jaguars need him to develop as a leader to be successful.
“There are a few guys who really came in and changed the culture and made things pop and he’s definitely one of them,” Jalen Ramsey said this week of his defensive teammate. “Yannick is an important piece on this team. He’s also a leader, and I really hope something is done. I think he has earned it.”
“He’s a hothead,” one veteran told me during Ngakoue’s rookie year. “But he’s good now.”
“How did you handle that?” I asked.
“We knocked the hell out of him everyday until he came around,” the vet said with a laugh.
Ngakoue was subjected to the standard rookie hazing, being in charge of getting food and drinks for the veterans on road trips. They sent him all over town to pick stuff up before boarding the team plane.
Here’s an exchange from a couple of weeks ago between Ngakoue and a reporter after practice. He was asked if it was important to show some leadership this year.
“It is important because I love the game and I try to go hard every day 100 percent. I’m trying to be a captain this year,” he said.
“Do you think about a 100-million-dollar contract,” the reporter asked.
“That money don’t mean nothing. But I know what I’m worth,” was the reply.
“What do you think you’re worth,” asked the reporter.
“What do you think I’m worth,” Ngakoue shot back.
“A lot,” was the quick answer.
“I appreciate that,” Yan said.
When asked if he would consider playing in 2019 if a long-term deal doesn’t come, Ngakoue was adamant.
“Absolutely. Of course I’m going to play. I love the game. I’m in God’s hands at the end of the day. I’ve been playing this game my whole life and that’s what I’m going to do.”
Although he shuns the “leader” label, Ramsey is an important part of the Jaguars locker room culture.
“Jalen just leads by example once he gets on the grass,” Defensive Coordinator Todd Wash explained. “He’s not a vocal guy in the room or anything like that, but they follow Jalen also even though he might not want that, but Jalen is also one of the leaders.”
“Once you get into year four, people expect you to put yourself in a leadership role,” Ramsey said. “That is not something you can force. I want to continue being myself, leading kind of from behind the scenes and by actions more so than breaking down the team and giving speeches to the team. That is not how I view leadership. I think there are different ways to lead.”
Leadership naturally falls to the quarterback so he has to be equipped to handle it through his play and his actions. Nick Foles admitted that right away.
“I think the big thing is being genuine, being who I am,” he said. “Obviously, leading by example. That’s why this part of the year is great because we come to work four days a week. You get an opportunity to get to know the guys and then you can build that trust and go from there.”
And that doesn’t happen overnight.
“Trust is something you can’t just rush,” Foles explained. “That’s why you come in here each day. I don’t try to be anything other than myself. I think guys respect that. My goal is right here to be who I am all the time.”
Head Coach Doug Marrone is well aware of the void in leadership in the Jaguars locker room but also realizes it’s something that can’t be manufactured.
“The team picks the captains. I don’t think as a coach you can go out there and orchestrate it and manipulate the situation,” he said. “ It’s going to come from those guys. They know, or should know, what they want in a captain, who they want the captain to be.“
What’s important for the Jaguars in 2019 is that their captains aren’t in name only.