For Brian Orakpo, it’s not all about sacks — and yet it is


Brian Orakpo and Stephen Bowen sack the Rams’ Sam Bradford in 2011. After 11, 8.5 and 9 sacks his first three seasons, Orakpo got hurt in Week 2 last season, and hopes to tally up the sacks this year without compromising the rest of his game. (Associated Press)
June 2, 2013

Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo wanted to make something clear. Orakpo knows he isn’t widely considered an elite player. But he should be listed among the NFL’s best. Just ask him.

“Absolutely,” he said after organized team activities Thursday at Redskins Park. “My teammates know it, my coaches know it and my peers, the guys I go against, they know it. . . . The perception that’s out there man, trust me, that’s gonna change.”

There’s only one way to make it happen: Orakpo has to get more sacks. In today’s pass-happy NFL, edge rushers such as Orakpo are measured on their ability to get the quarterback. In his first three seasons, Orakpo had 28.5 sacks. That’s a solid total. It was good enough to help Orakpo earn two Pro Bowl selections.

Having solid stats, though, won’t elevate you among the stars at the league’s glamour position on defense. Also, Orakpo is seeking a big contract extension. Coach Mike Shanahan would rather find cheaper options than reward players whose production doesn’t match their salary demands.

It’s time for Orakpo to prove he’s special. After his 2012 season ended in Week 2 because of a torn chest muscle, Orakpo must return better than ever. He’ll have to pile up sacks — something in the 13 to 16 range. He needs to produce more in games against NFC East opponents. Orakpo has to convince Shanahan he’s indispensable.

The Redskins’ awful performance on defense last season should help Orakpo make his case. Without Orakpo and defensive end Adam Carriker, also sidelined for the final 14 games because of a torn thigh muscle, the Redskins ranked 28th out of 32 teams in total defense. They were even worse against the pass: 30th. In 2011, the Redskins finished 13th overall on defense.

The Redskins knew their secondary would be shaky. Way before the season began, the coaching staff realized it had major problems at safety. Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett were counting on a strong pass rush to help overcome the team’s deficiencies in pass coverage. Their thinking made sense.

In 2011, the Redskins finished tied for 10th in sacks. Orakpo led the team with nine and Carriker contributed 5.5. Then, Orakpo and Carriker both went down against St. Louis, and, well, so much for the Redskins’ best-laid plans. The Redskins finished tied for 23rd in sacks last season. Although Haslett was a game-planning whiz during the team’s season-closing, seven-game winning streak, you don’t have to understand the complexities of Washington’s 3-4 defense to realize the team missed Orakpo and Carriker.

Haslett is Orakpo’s biggest supporter in the organization. Orakpo doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his overall impact on the Redskins’ defense, Haslett often says. Orakpo is particularly strong against the run, “and in our scheme, we rely heavily on stopping the run first,” Orakpo said. “That’s what Haz wants us to do. Once we do that, then we get after it (rush the passer).

“I’m not rushing as much as some of those other guys (3-4 outside linebackers). And you have a lot of one-dimensional guys out there. All they do is get after it. Man, I take pride in everything I do in my craft. I take pride in getting it done on both sides and helping my teammates.”

Carriker, defensive end Stephen Bowen and nose tackle Barry Cofield have praised Orakpo for the hard work he does in taking on multiple blockers. Orakpo’s effort often has resulted in freeing them to make plays. The game’s highest-paid outside linebackers help their teammates as well accumulate impressive statistics.

In April, Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews signed a $66 million extension that included a $20.5 million signing bonus. Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware has almost $26 million in guaranteed money in his contract. What do Matthews and Ware have in common? Sacks, of course.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses whether the Redskins offense needs to change how it plays in the 2013 season to protect quarterback Robert Griffin III. (Post Sports Live)

Matthews, selected 13 spots after Orakpo in the 2009 draft, has had three seasons of double-digit sacks, including two seasons of 13 or more. In eight seasons, Ware has failed to record at least 11 sacks just once. Twice, Ware has had more than 19 sacks.

Orakpo only has one double-digit season, “and the perception is that if you don’t get around that [16-sack range], you had a good year but you didn’t have a huge year,” Orakpo said. “Obviously, I haven’t hit the range.

“But if you look at the film . . . it’s havoc all the time, man. I’m creating stuff — hurries, this and that. . . . Now, don’t get it twisted. I always want to have a big year. And I know I can.”

For Orakpo, stepping it up against division opponents would help. In 18 career starts against Dallas, Philadelphia and the New York Giants, Orakpo only has 3.5 sacks. He failed to get one sack in his first two seasons. That’s the sort of thing that tends to comes up in contract talks.

Also, Orakpo’s next interception will be his first. Orakpo has started 49 games. In 32 career starts, Redskins outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns. So far, it just hasn’t added up well enough for Orakpo to be included on the top line with guys like Matthews and Ware.

Everyone knows winning isn’t all about statistics. But contract negotiations mostly are about numbers. And that’s not just perception. That’s reality.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/
reid.

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.
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