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On the surface, a comparison between Yannick Ngakoue and nine-time Pro Bowl selection Julius Peppers seems odd, almost counterintuitive.
The Bears list Ngakoue, whom they signed Friday to a one-year, $10.5 million contract, at 6-foot-2, 246 pounds. When Peppers joined the Bears in 2010 in a blockbuster free-agency signing, he was 6-7, 295.
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Pass rushers come in different shapes and sizes, and Ngakoue and Peppers certainly would not resemble one another standing side by side. It seems more like an apples-to-oranges comparison.
But former Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who was Ngakoue’s line coach in 2021 with the Las Vegas Raiders and worked with Peppers during his stint in Chicago, says they are more alike than initially meets the eye.
“If you look at Julius and the size, you are shocked at the speed and how fast he runs and moves,” Marinelli said. “If you look at Yannick, you are going to be shocked at his power. It’s the same combination, it’s just opposite.”
Peppers, who will be eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the first time in 2024, is fourth in NFL history with 159 1/2 sacks. He played in 266 games, tied for sixth among defensive players, and was a matchup nightmare for offensive linemen during his 17-year career.
Ngakoue, 28, is two years younger than Peppers was when he joined the Bears. Ngakoue has been a model of consistency with eight or more sacks in each of his first seven seasons. The Bears are his sixth team.
Marinelli puts Peppers and Ngakoue in the same upper bracket of pass rushers because of their full tool boxes to defeat offensive tackles.
“Yannick’s power out of his stance and up the field, he can turn that into a power rush in a second because these offensive tackles are bailing on him due to the speed,” Marinelli said. “The offensive tackles with Julius had to brace themselves because they had 6-7, 295 pounds coming at them, and then — pfft! — he was right around the corner.
“It’s just the opposite with Ngakoue. Your sets better be right or he’s going to go right around you. He is fast. His get-off is really something.”
Ngakoue is expected to practice with the Bears for the first time Tuesday morning at Halas Hall after spending the weekend preparing to move. It’s unlikely he will play in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans at Soldier Field, but it shouldn’t take long to get him up to speed.
Defensive line coach Travis Smith worked under Marinelli in Las Vegas when Ngakoue was with the Raiders. The scheme is the same. The playbook is similar. Add it up and general manager Ryan Poles probably got the best fit for what his coaches want to do — and did so despite waiting until the end of the second week of training camp.
Familiarity and a roster in desperate need of edge help make it the perfect fit for Ngakoue, who curiously has been hunting a lucrative multiyear contract even as he puts up numbers season after season.
The Jacksonville Jaguars placed the franchise tag on him after the 2019 season and eventually traded him to the Minnesota Vikings less than two weeks before the 2020 season opener, unable to work out a contract with their 2016 third-round draft pick.
A spiraling Vikings team flipped him to the Baltimore Ravens in the middle of the 2020 season. In 2021 Ngakoue received a two-year, $26 million contract from the Raiders, reuniting him with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who coached him in Jacksonville.
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After one season in Las Vegas — in which Ngakoue had 10 sacks and 23 quarterback hits — the Raiders hired a new front office and coaching staff and traded Ngakoue to the Indianapolis Colts, again reuniting him with Bradley. Ngakoue had 9 1/2 sacks in 15 games in 2022, missing the final two games for throat surgery.
Instead of re-signing Ngakoue, the Colts brought in Samson Ebukam, also 28, on a two-year, $12 million contract after he posted a career-best five sacks for the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Free agency went from the first wave to the second and the draft came and went, and Ngakoue was without a team. Offseason programs started and ended, and Ngakoue remained unsigned.
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“Working out, keeping my mind clear and spending time with family,” Ngakoue said of the experience. “That’s the best way that I was able to navigate through all the traffic.”
Asked if he was frustrated that his performance has led to shuffling from team to team rather than landing a banner deal in free agency, he flipped the script.
“It’s a blessing to be in the NFL,” Ngakoue said. “A lot of people would kill to be in my shoes.”
Marinelli figured Ngakoue would have remained with the Raiders for the second year of his contract had there not been an organizational overhaul. Beyond that, who knows?
“All I know — and I’ve looked at it — his numbers are really good every year,” Marinelli said. “He’s a prideful guy. He goes hard on the field. Watch his individual drills and the detail he puts into it. That’s a great question (why he hasn’t gotten a big multiyear contract). Good tape and good production.”
Sources with multiple teams said months ago that Ngakoue had priced himself well out of their range. One team said Ngakoue was seeking in March to be paid just under the highest level of edge rushers. There are eight that average $20 million or more per season and six more between $17 million and $17.55 million.
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Whatever the case, Ngakoue is with the Bears this season, and if he puts up numbers commensurate with the top 12 to 15 pass rushers in the league, they would have the first shot at signing him to the kind of contract others have said he is hunting.
Ngakoue has been knocked for his run defense, but Bears coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams have been adamant he will be a base-down defender for them. The collection of ends the team rolled out last season wasn’t good at rushing the passer, stopping the run or setting the edge.
“He’s always kind of had a rap for not being the best run defender, but when he was in Vegas with us, he was really an all-around player,” Marinelli said. “I don’t know what he did in Indy last year, but I am assuming he was the same player for Gus. He’s a complete defensive end. Tough, really fine demeanor, great communicator and extremely coachable.”
Ngakoue also has an appreciation for the history of the game and studies players who came before him.
“A guy that I really loved to watch was Julius Peppers when he had his stop here,” Ngakoue said. “A guy that was a great power rusher. A guy that had great speed off the edge.
“Coach Marinelli used to tell me we have a lot of the same attributes. I just have to tap into that skill set and show the world.”