Not far behind Robert Griffin III and DeSean Jackson, the Redskins player who most onlookers assume has the most to prove coming into this season is linebacker Brian Orakpo. That just simply isn’t true.
After failing to reach an agreement for a multiyear contract, the three-time Pro Bowler will play the 2014 season under the franchise tag, which pays him $11.45 million and allows him to become a free agent again at the end of the season.
“You can talk about contracts and this and that. Throw all that out the window, man,” Orakpo said. “I’m signed for the 2014 season. I need to go out there and make plays. I need to go out there and be a force.”
What that means is open to interpretation, which leads to some lofty expectations.
When you hear fans and analysts talk about what is needed for Orakpo to join the ranks of the elite pass rushers in the league, what you hear most often is that he needs to make game changing plays. Sacks are a must, preferably closer to 15 or 17 than 10. They’d also like to see those sacks occur late in close games. They’d like to see him force more turnovers, too.
But when you look at Orakpo’s performance last season, the linebacker has already proven himself to be a force.
Let’s start with the sack total. I agree, sacks are a tangible way to gauge the effectiveness of a pass rusher. However, 15 to 17 sacks in a season from the linebacker position has rarely happened in NFL history. Since sacks were officially tabulated by the league (1982), a linebacker has registered 15 or more sacks just 26 times in a season and only six have done it more than once: Kevin Greene, Lawrence Taylor, DeMarcus Ware, Tim Harris, Pat Swelling and Andre Tippett.
So while sacks – whether they come early in a blowout or or late in close games – are tangible, they aren’t the only way a linebacker can disrupt the oppositions passing game. Instead let’s look at his overall playmaking ability, as tabulated by Wins Probability Added. WPA measures each play in terms of how much it increased or decreased a team’s chances of winning the game. While it “tallies the value of every sack, interception, pass defense, forced fumble or recovery, and every tackle or assist that results in a setback for the offense,” it doesn’t account for the “all the hidden action not reported in the play-by-play,” but the better a player is, the less “negative” impact he should have.
There is likely to be a strong correlation between a defender’s visible positive impact and his overall net impact. In other words, we should expect better defenders to tend to have both more positive plays and fewer negative plays. This is because of the symmetric nature of the distribution of human performance.
During the 2013 season, Orakpo had the 11th highest WPA (1.88) among 226 linebackers in just 15 games played after registering 10 sacks, 18 hits on the quarterback, four passes deflected and no forced fumbles. By comparison, Colts Robert Mathis had 19 1/2 sacks, 21 hits, deflected two passes and had seven forced fumbles but barely a higher WPA (1.92).
It should also be noted that among those 15 linebackers at the top of the league in WPA, only two had more Pass Rushing events (sacks, passes deflected and QB hits) than Orakpo’s 32 last season: Mathis (42) and Arizona’s Karlos Dansby (37).
From a strict pass rushing angle, Orakpo was tied for fifth among outside linebackers playing in a 3-4 defense in Pro Football Focus’ Pass Rushing Productivity metric, which measures pressure created on a per snap basis with weighting toward sacks.
Those waiting for Orakpo to become an elite linebacker have missed what’s right under their noses, the Redskins star is already performing as one of the best linebackers in the league.