How big a contract should Brian Orakpo get?

Brian Orakpo, Lamar Holmes

Brian Orakpo, here as Lamar Holmes attempts to block him late in the Falcons game, has 39.5 sacks in 64 career games. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

openingkicklogoIt’s well established that outside linebacker Brian Orakpo is the most prominent 2014 Redskins free agent, and that his skills as a pass rusher will earn him a hefty new contract.

In the ongoing discussions in the Insider comments, the debate frequently centers not on whether fans want Orakpo back  most do  but at what price. General consensus is to try to sign him to a reasonable deal, allowing the team to address holes elsewhere, replace the other soon-to-be-departing free agents and find players it can tailor to new coach Jay Gruden’s preferences.

So first, then, the bad news.

Orakpo is atop Rotoworld’s list of free-agent outside linebackers, ahead of Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds, Denver’s Shaun Phillips and No. 6 Rob Jackson, also a Redskins free agent. He’s also at the top of the footballsfuture.com list, ahead of the Ravens’ Daryl Smith and Phillips.

The lists of top defensive ends (FF here, RW here) suggest Orakpo may not be the top pass rusher on the market, thanks to Carolina’s Greg Hardy, Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson, Minnesota’s Jared Allen and New York’s Justin Tuck. But Orakpo, 27, is likely to be the most sought-after 3-4 outside linebacker.

A deep dig into the numbers supports the idea that Orakpo should be highly pursued. Only a handful of players had more than his 11 10 sacks this past season, and only two had significantly more (the Colts’ Robert Mathis with 18 and the Bills’ Mario Williams with 14. Three others had 12). And all those players had at least 457 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, while Orakpo, rushing 78% of the time, had 363.

Looking beyond sacks alone, PFF had Orakpo tied with John Abraham for fifth in pass-rushing productivity, behind Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes, Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil and the Chiefs’ Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. PFF counted 11 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 29 hurries for 51 total quarterback pressures last season.

Sorting the data differently, FootballOutsiders.com and AdvancedNFLStats.com also put Orakpo among the top edge-rushing linebackers.

Let’s take a trip back to last offseason to see what kinds of contracts free-agent outside linebackers got. Paul Kruger got a five-year, $41 million deal from the Browns, an average of more than $8 million a season. The Eagles gave Connor Barwin a six-year, $36 million deal, the Dolphins five and $26 million to Phillip Wheeler and the Colts four and $16 million to Erik Walden.

Kruger had four sacks and 51 total pressures this season in 419 pass-rush snaps. Barwin had three sacks and 40 pressures in 408 and Walden four and 34 in 318.

Orakpo’s camp might try to put him in the company of the premier edge rushers of the past few seasons, Clay Matthews Jr., J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Cameron Wake and Calais Campbell among them. While Orakpo’s contract likely won’t approach the ballpark of Matthews, DeMarcus Ware or Terrell Suggs, take a look at this list of largest contracts for 3-4 outside linebackers by overthecap.com. Only six players averaged more than $10 million this season, but only three more fill the gap between $6 and 10 million. Getting a premier 3-4 edge rusher for less than a $6 million average would take a stroke of luck, and that doesn’t usually happen with 27-year-old free agents, especially when Orakpo can make a case that he belongs pretty high on that list regardless of age.

Almost half the league’s defenses are using a 3-4, so he should have some suitors. Worilds, at 25, might be the only free-agent outside linebacker with the combination of youth and promise close to Orakpo’s, which makes him the prime competition for a big-money deal.

Orakpo is a core Redskin, and there are plenty of reasons to want him back. But it won’t come cheap. So is the money better spent on bringing in several players, or on re-signing Rob Jackson and letting someone else pay Orakpo? Or is he the case of a rare impact player that teams don’t acquire often, and should be kept at all measures?

Post Sports Live, Which free agents should the Redskins keep?

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesdays.

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