The offseason began a month ago for the Washington Redskins, but now that the dust has settled with the hiring of Jay Gruden and his coaching staff, team officials now turn to reconstructing the roster.
Over the next month, we’ll take a look at some of the team’s most pressing offseason decisions. Up first: the future of outside linebacker Brian Orakpo.
The 13th overall pick of the 2009 draft, Orakpo has made the transition from college defensive end to NFL defensive end in the 4-3 during the Jim Zorn/Vinny Ceratto administration, to outside linebacker in Jim Haslett’s 3-4 system.
After missing all but two games in 2012 because of a torn pectoral muscle, Orakpo returned this season and rebounded from a slow start to post one of the finest campaigns of his career.
Orakpo recorded 10 sacks — the first double-digit sack season of his career since 2009. This season, he also had four multi-sack games after managing just five in the previous four seasons. He recorded the first interception and touchdown (a 29-yard INT return against Chicago) of his career, and also notched 60 total tackles, edging the 59 recorded in 2011. His solo tackle tally of 43 topped his previous best of 37, which he posted as a rookie. Last month, Orakpo made his third Pro Bowl.
Orakpo always has to deal with the question of whether or not he ranks among the league’s elite at his position. He will tell you yes despite the fact that he hasn’t tallied as many double-digit sack campaigns as counterparts like Clay Matthews (four in five seasons – the same amount of time as Orakpo), DeMarcus Ware (seven in nine years), Robert Quinn (two in three seasons) or Robert Matthis (five in 11 seasons).
Orakpo’s ability to counter initial blocks has come into question over the past five years. At times, if he can’t beat an offensive lineman with a speed rush or bull rush, he has seemed to struggle to come up with another move that would enable him to get to the quarterback. Orakpo says that he is constantly working on counter-moves, but that many times, he can’t just dip to the inside to beat a block because he is instructed to contain the outside and not leave that edge unguarded.
Orakpo’s responsibilities also differ from most of those players because he is asked to drop back into coverage more frequently, and rush the quarterback fewer times per game. Because of that, Haslett says the comparisons aren’t entirely fair or accurate.
As the coach explained late last season, “I don’t know what you’re calling elite, but I’ll say sack-wise, numbers-wise, he’s got 10, and you’ve got Mathis, who has [16.5 sacks], who rushes every down, Quinn, who has 15 I think, he rushes every down — I don’t know who else is in between — but I would say that’s fair because [Orakpo] doesn’t rush every down,” Haslett said. “He rushes every time on third down or nickel, but he does drop into coverage. He’s really good in the run — I think him and Ryan [Kerrigan] are two of the best I’ve been around at covering people, so I don’t think it’s fair [comparison].”
Haslett last month said that Orakpo ranked among the Redskins’ priority re-signings.
Doing so would make sense for a number of reasons. In Orakpo, the Redskins have an edge rusher who is already fully fluent in his responsibilities in Haslett’s complex defense, and also has the potential to improve. Orakpo believes that the final eight games of this season (seven sacks during that span) reflect his capabilities now that he isn’t having to work his way back from injury.
Additionally, the Redskins’ options outside of Orakpo are rather thin. Without a first-round draft pick, they don’t have the ability to acquire an elite pass rusher from the college ranks. And because impact pass rushers are so hard to come by, few teams let them hit the free agent market.
Orakpo is actually the top-rated outside linebacker set to become a free agent. After him, you have Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds (a fifth-year player, who was a backup until this season, when made 11 starts in 11 games and notched eight sacks — also a career-high), Dallas’s Anthony Spencer (coming off season-ending microfracture surgery) and Green Bay’s Mike Neal (fifth-year player who has never served as a full-time starter or recorded more than five sacks in a season).
Orakpo’s backup, Rob Jackson, also is a free agent. Jackson recorded 4.5 sacks and four interceptions (one for a touchdown) in 14 games as a starter with Orakpo injured in 2012. But the Redskins don’t view him as a better option than Orakpo.
● Related: How big a contract should Brian Orakpo get?
So what kind of money could Orakpo command? Matthews, who has a Super Bowl ring, last offseason signed a five-year extension that is paying him on average $13.2 million a year. It’d be hard to imagine Orakpo topping that. Some league insiders believe he’s looking at more of the $10-million-per-year range, which would also be in the neighborhood of the expected one-year salary for a linebacker playing under the franchise tag.
Still others believe that the more realistic contract for Orakpo could resemble that of Cleveland’s Paul Kruger, who last offseason signed a five-year deal worth roughly $8.1 million per season.
That raises another question: Is Orakpo worth a long-term deal? Or, would the Redskins be better using the franchise tag on him to give him another year to prove his worth, and then revisit his situation next offseason?
Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at email@example.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesdays.
● At 12, Mark Maske on the NFL’s impressions of the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl.
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