Awarding franchise tag to Brian Orakpo is the wrong move for the Redskins

The Post Sports Live crew tries to decipher what the move by the Redskins to franchise linebacker Brian Orakpo means for Orakpo's future with the team and for the defense in 2014. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist March 3

Facing his first major player-personnel decision as the leader of the Washington Redskins, General Manager Bruce Allen made the wrong one on Monday: He used the franchise designation on outside linebacker Brian Orakpo.

By designating Orakpo as their franchise player, the Redskins have, in effect, removed him from the unrestricted free agent market for a year. Teams that use the franchise tag on players have the right to retain them by matching potential offers from other clubs or to receive two first-round draft picks from the new team if he is permitted to leave.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

However, the Redskins will be stuck paying Orakpo at least $11.455 million — the one-year franchise-player deal for a linebacker — if he stays with them, which he likely will. (Most teams are highly reluctant to give up one first-round selection to acquire a player, let alone two.) And if Orakpo successfully argues he should be paid the franchise-player salary for a defensive end, based on the number of plays he lined up at that position last season, the Redskins will owe him $13.116 million next season.

Either way, that’s way too much money for the Redskins, who have crater-size holes throughout their roster, to allocate for one player. The Redskins, people in the organization say, still hope to sign Orakpo to a multiyear contract extension because Allen believes the team is better off with him long term. On that much, I’m in agreement.

If the numbers are right, the hardworking Orakpo definitely is a keeper. It’s just that in five years with the Redskins, Orakpo has failed to prove he deserves to be paid like a star.

Edge rushers in the NFL are evaluated on their ability to get to the quarterback. They all know the deal: more sacks, more money.

In 64 career games, Orakpo has 39.5 sacks. The three-time Pro Bowl selection led the team in sacks four times (as a rookie, he shared the top spot). Orakpo has been solid. The Redskins, though, need him to be much more.

The best outside linebackers are difference-makers. They control the edge, consistently make big plays and repeatedly produce double-digit sack totals. During Orakpo’s time in the NFL, DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys and Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers have been among the best. For Ware and Matthews, their exceptional play resulted in huge paydays. Orakpo isn’t a game-changer.

After recording 11 sacks in his rookie year, Orakpo hasn’t had as many since. During the first half of its schedule last season, Washington went 3-5 and Orakpo totaled only three sacks. With the team vying to remain in playoff contention, Orakpo was a nonfactor. During the Redskins’ season-closing, eight-game losing streak, Orakpo turned it up and amassed seven sacks. The Redskins need more players who are at their best when the pressure still is on.

Orakpo would argue his performance improved later in the year because it took him a while to get right physically after his 2012 season ended in Week 2 because of a torn chest muscle. That’s what Orakpo told me in October when we discussed his situation.

Early in the season, Orakpo still had concerns about “just letting it go. . . . You want to go out there and do everything like you always have, man. You want to be that guy again. You want to do it right away.

“You say to yourself, ‘Yeah, it feels good,’ so you think you’re ready to be the same guy you always [were on the field]. But there’s still that doubt, too, man. You just gotta put it behind you. Once you do that, you’re good.”

Even factoring in the inevitable recovery time — both physical and mental — Orakpo needed to regain form after such a serious injury, his overall body of work doesn’t merit the salary he’ll receive if the Redskins and his agent cannot reach a multiyear deal. And the Redskins’ roster is in such a state of disrepair, it is unconscionable for Allen to commit so much money to Orakpo with as many holes as he must fill.

The Redskins, who have finished last in the NFC East five of the past six seasons, must dramatically improve their roster at right tackle, wide receiver, inside linebacker and safety. In addition, they face questions at cornerback — is David Amerson the answer opposite DeAngelo Hall? — and along the defensive line.

They’ll have to address their long to-do list without the benefit of having a first-round draft selection. As a result of the trade for quarterback Robert Griffin III, the St. Louis Rams own the Redskins’ pick in May’s draft.

The Redskins will have more than $30 million in salary cap space, which is a good amount for a rebuilding team. More than a third of the team’s cap room, though, could be committed to Orakpo. There are only two words for that: bad management.

Teams usually lock up talented edge rushers because there aren’t enough of them in the league. The Redskins do not have a young replacement for Orakpo on the roster, and Allen, judging by Monday’s move, did not feel confident he could find someone as productive as Orakpo in free agency or after the first round in the draft.

But it is Allen’s job to build a strong roster for first-year Coach Jay Gruden. Allen has to come up with solutions to problems. Allen has whiffed in his first at-bat, so how can Gruden have confidence he’ll hit home runs later?

In using the franchise tag on Orakpo, Allen, one way or another, has rewarded a player whom the Redskins drafted and developed. That’s a good thing to do — when you have the right player for whom to do it.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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