RICHMOND — Most of the attention at the Washington Redskins’ training camp has been focused on a player who is coming back from injury and has yet to do much on the practice field, quarterback Robert Griffin III. And rightfully so: Griffin plays the sport’s most important position, is one of the league’s most dynamic players and engineered the franchise’s late-season run last year to an NFC East title.
But the story lines at this Redskins camp also include the comebacks of tight end Fred Davis, safety Brandon Meriweather and linebacker Brian Orakpo. Orakpo’s return from the torn left pectoral muscle that ended his 2012 season after only two games is viewed as particularly important, with teammates saying his pass-rushing presence could transform a defense that ranked 30th in the league against the pass last season.
“He’s what you call a difference-maker. . . . He can help make some of the other players better when you’re able to pressure the quarterback, get sacks on the quarterback,” linebacker London Fletcher said. “And also from a game-plan standpoint, the [opposing] offensive coordinators, they have to account for him. So he’s going to help other guys play better football.”
It has been so far, so good for the Redskins on Orakpo’s progress. He has participated in the early practices of training camp without limitations, and he and Coach Mike Shanahan have said he is on an unrestricted schedule for the remainder of camp. Redskins players had Sunday off and will return to the practice field Monday.
“We’ve been working extremely hard all offseason getting ready for the upcoming season,” Orakpo said. “For myself, man, I’m just ecstatic to be back out there.”
Orakpo said he got his timing and his confidence in his physical well-being back by participating in the team’s offseason practices.
“I feel great, man,” he said. “I kind of got a little rhythm back once [organized team activities] started. . . . I had little butterflies and, you know, worried about if I tweak something here and there or if this move will generate more pain than the other. I got all those butterflies out of the way once we started in OTAs. I’m ready to go.”
Orakpo reinjured his left pectoral muscle last year after suffering a similar injury to the same muscle, although in a different spot, at the end of the 2011 season. Even so, he said he has been told by doctors he is not at an increased risk for further such injuries.
“The shoulder, pec, everything is great,” Orakpo said. “I’m ready to rock and roll. . . . Once they went in there and did their surgery, did what they had to do, I shouldn’t have any problems from here on out.”
Some teammates say they were reminded of what they were missing last season when they saw Orakpo’s explosiveness as a pass rusher on the practice field during offseason practices. Shanahan said he, too, has liked what he has seen so far.
“He’s had a lot of time to rehab, and he’s doing everything he possibly can to get in the best football shape he can,” Shanahan said. “He looked great in OTAs. You’re always hoping that they stay healthy, but you never know for sure. . . . I feel looking at ’Rak through all the OTAs, he’s as good as I’ve seen him. . . . He’s possessed, the way he’s practicing, the way he’s playing.”
Orakpo is a two-time Pro Bowl selection and has 29.5sacks in his 49 NFL games over his four seasons with the Redskins. Fellow outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan led the Orakpo-less Redskins last season with 8.5sacks. But he too often had little pass-rushing help; no one else on the defense reached even the five-sack mark. Rob Jackson, one of those who received playing time in place of Orakpo, had 4.5sacks.
The team’s defense struggled mightily at times while watching Griffin and the offense do the heavy lifting but regrouped to contribute down the stretch to the seven-game winning streak that enabled the Redskins to capture the division crown. This season, the Redskins hope the defense does its part far better and far sooner.
“There’s like so many new faces now coming back from injury. . . . Meriweather is back, myself,” Orakpo said. “We’ve got a lot of pieces that we’re going to need to be successful this year. . . . We’re not playing around. We got a taste of what it feels like to have a successful season. And we don’t ever want to step away from that.”
The former first-round draft choice is entering the final season of his contract, and it appears the Redskins intend to sign him to an extension. Otherwise, he would be eligible for free agency next offseason. But it’s not clear whether the Redskins have made a negotiating push yet toward completing a deal and, if they haven’t, when they will do so. Orakpo said he is focusing on his play and leaving the negotiations to his representatives.
He clearly is being made to feel wanted, saying that people in the organization regularly have told him how badly the team needs him back at full force this season.
“The coaches expressed that, and my teammates expressed that,” Orakpo said. “That’s why I worked extremely hard to come back healthy and better than before. I’m looking forward to a big year not only for myself but for the team as a whole, for the defense as a whole to be a great unit.”