Ryan Kerrigan knows what’s coming. A young face and eager attitude, he’s the new kid in a school of oversize bullies.
“They know I’m a rookie. I’ve never played linebacker in a real NFL game before. I expect teams to come at me,” said Kerrigan, who is set to make his pro debut for the Washington Redskins in Sunday’s season opener against the New York Giants.
Kerrigan, 23, was drafted by the Redskins not because he could help them at a single position. Coach Mike Shanahan tabbed the Purdue defensive end because he thought Kerrigan could improve both outside linebacker spots.
Thus far, it has been only a theory. Kerrigan has been working the past seven weeks to make the shift from end to linebacker. On Sunday the Redskins will learn whether NFL teams consider Kerrigan enough of a threat to divert attention from Brian Orakpo. Last season, teams could focus their energies on one side because it was easy to predict the source of any pressure.
“Any time you have two excellent pass rushers, it obviously takes pressure off of one guy because you can’t slide to a guy,” Shanahan explained.
“Sometimes the line is going to have to double-fan. And when they can slide to what they consider more of a down lineman and take a back and block them, obviously it puts a lot more pressure on that guy. I think it did for Brian last year.
“Hopefully, teams have to game-plan us a little more, and we can put a little more pressure than we did last year.”
The Redskins ranked 25th in the NFL with 29 sacks last season. Orakpo tallied 81 / 2 of those, but the other outside linebacker — usually Lorenzo Alexander or Andre Carter — accounted for just four. Orakpo dealt with double-teams, grabby offensive linemen and blockers coming out of the backfield. It took its toll. Orakpo’s sacks came in the first 11 games. He didn’t have any after Nov. 28.
“I think he has the ability to step up another notch,” said Jim Haslett, the team’s defensive coordinator, noting that he’s already spotted progress this preseason. “The thing I like about him: He’s playing physical on tight ends; he’s using his hands better. Obviously, he’s a good pass rusher. His coverage, he’s a lot better because he understands what we’re doing.”
Orakpo also is a converted defensive end.
His first two years as a pro, he had to learn two new defensive systems and played under two coordinators. This year he is enjoying the continuity and thinks it will pay dividends on the field.
“I know the defense like the back of my hand, man,” he said. “I’m just going out there and reacting to what’s out there. Last year, you’re still trying to get used to the things, the different schemes, the different philosophy that Haslett does out there as far as coverage-wise. It took a while for me to get used to it. This year, it’s obviously, like, 10 times better.”
Orakpo will only be better if Kerrigan proves to be a threat on the opposite edge. Haslett says Kerrigan’s growth will be an “ongoing process,” and coaches figure the rookie will be much more polished at the end of the season than he is now. In college, Kerrigan never had to drop back in coverage, and opposing NFL coaches surely know this.
“This is something new,” Haslett said. “He’s very bright kid, picks things up fast. Sure, he’ll make a few mistakes here and there, but he makes them 100 miles per hour. That’s the thing we like about him. . . . Nothing rattles him. Whatever he sees, he never gets rattled. Something new comes, he might do something poor, but it doesn’t phase him. He goes on, he learns from it, very rarely does he make that second mistake again."
Learning a new position and system, Kerrigan feels he is making huge strides each week. Coaches feel like he is ready to start right away, but Sunday will offer the first definitive evidence of just how ready he is, and how defenses adjust to account for him.
“You’re always your own worst critic,” Kerrigan said. “I just hope I can generate more of a pass rush consistently throughout the course of a game. . . . It’s starting to feel more natural definitely. It’s one of those things I have to keep doing, keep getting more reps at, and I’ll continue to feel more comfortable.”
Sunday won’t offer fans a view of the finished product as much as it will be an early preview. Coaches think Kerrigan will get better, Orakpo will get more dominant and the pair will be rushing the edges wearing Redskins uniforms for years to come.
“Me and him are gonna be here for a while. That’s the goal,” Orakpo said. “That’s what I see, because obviously he’s a young guy, I’m a young guy. We both have great talents. We’ll work together to achieve the ultimate goal, and that’s getting this team over the hump. I really feel like we’re going to be a duo for the future.”
Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.