Show me an NFL team with a weak pass rush, and I’ll show you a team that’s not very good. In this era of spread offenses and receivers receiving white-glove treatment, getting to the quarterback has never been more important.
That’s why the Washington Redskins will pay outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and new defensive lineman Jason Hatcher almost $22 million combined this season. Redskins President and General Manager Bruce Allen approved the costly — and risky — moves as the centerpiece of his strategy to bolster the team’s poor defense. Over their careers, neither player has demonstrated the type of consistency that would warrant their big paydays. And since it appears Allen did little to fill crater-sized holes in the secondary, the Redskins could need a lot from Orakpo and Hatcher.
It starts with Orakpo. Allen and new Coach Jay Gruden need him to be something he wasn’t in his first five seasons: a difference-maker. At Orakpo’s position, the best players consistently harass quarterbacks, control the edge and make big plays. When you think of the top outside linebackers during Orakpo’s time in the league — the list includes former Dallas Cowboys star DeMarcus Ware, who’s now with the Denver Broncos, and Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers — Orakpo’s name doesn’t come to mind. That’s why I disagreed with the Redskins’ decision to designate Orakpo as their franchise player.
Orakpo, who turns 28 next month, will make $11.455 million — the one-year franchise-player deal for a linebacker — which is a lot of money to commit to a good-but-not-great player. In 64 career games, the three-time Pro Bowler has 39.5 sacks. He has led the team in sacks four times, including sharing the top spot as a rookie. Orakpo fits well at the right number. His salary isn’t it.
The Redskins went 3-13 last season. They’ve finished last or tied for last in the NFC East seven of the past 10 seasons. During that span, the Redskins have only three playoff appearances. A team that has failed for so long can’t afford to pay superstar wages to supporting actors.
No one with any credibility in Redskins management — it’s a short list — would argue Orakpo has been a dominant player. The Redskins didn’t have any last season while finishing 18th out of 32 teams in total defense and 21st in sacks.
In discussing Orakpo with me, one team official argued that Orakpo’s best days are ahead of him. The Redskins had to retain Orakpo, the official said, because they didn’t have a first-round draft pick. And even if the Redskins did have a high pick, he continued, Orakpo is better than any player they could have drafted. For what it’s worth, Orakpo believes he has performed like a headliner.
Often when he speaks about his situation, his frustration is evident. The Redskins should give Orakpo a multiyear extension because “I deserve it,” he said Wednesday after offseason practice at Redskins Park. “I feel like it’s my time.”
If Orakpo finally has a breakout season, perhaps he’ll receive the security he wants elsewhere. Often, that’s the way these things work. “I’m confident in my game,” he said. “I can play for years. I’m a Redskin for now.”
After eight years with the Cowboys, Hatcher is as well. There’s a lot to like about him.
The Redskins had to upgrade a defensive line that produced only 51 / 2 sacks last fall. Adding a player who had 11 sacks a season ago seems to make sense. Orakpo and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan accounted for 181 / 2sacks. On defense, the Redskins could have something good up front. With their back end potentially a mess again, they’ll need it.
Washington’s safety position has been unsettled for years. A strong pass rush is a defensive back’s best friend. In practice, Hatcher has impressed. The Redskins expect that to continue when games resume.
“He’s a man among boys,” veteran cornerback DeAngelo Hall said of Hatcher, who did not attend Wednesday’s practice. “When you see him rush . . . you know when he’s not here. He just gets after it that much. . . . He’s really a beast.”
He also turns 32 next month. Generally, teams are reluctant to give 30-plus players multiyear deals because of how rapidly many decline physically.
Hatcher, the Redskins are quick to point out, was a backup for the first five seasons of his career. Since he hasn’t played as much as some linemen his age, their thinking goes, his age isn’t as much of a factor. But Hatcher wasn’t sipping iced tea on the sidelines during games. He was in the Cowboys’ rotation.
The Redskins have to hope Hatcher, who became a starter in 2011, isn’t a one-hit wonder. Hatcher hadn’t had as many as five sacks in a season until producing 11 in a contract year. Hatcher’s contract indicates the Redskins had some concerns.
With a $9 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million base salary, Hatcher this year will receive all the guaranteed money in his four-year deal. If Hatcher doesn’t meet expectations, the Redskins won’t owe him anything beyond next season. Same thing with Orakpo.
By spending big money on Orakpo and Hatcher, Allen may have improved the defense. But even if he has, it could just be a short-term fix.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.