While celebrating someone else’s accomplishment, Brian Orakpo made his best move of the preseason. After Ryan Kerrigan sacked Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel during a Washington Redskins victory, Orakpo mocked Manziel by doing the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner’s signature finger-rubbing money sign. Hopefully for Washington, Orakpo’s teammates soon will be busy marking his big plays.
Entering his sixth — and, in all likelihood, his last — season with Washington, the outside linebacker has a big salary and the expectations that accompany it. Washington used its franchise tag on Orakpo, 28, guaranteeing him $11.455 million and gambling he’ll finally have the breakout season for which it has been waiting. For Orakpo, who can become a free agent after the Super Bowl, it has never been more important to have a career year.
The team declined to reward Orakpo with the massive multiyear extension he believes he earned. “When it’s your time, you should get what you deserve,” Orakpo said, making his disappointment known publicly. Often, players who feel slighted by teams seek new ones to join.
In the draft, President and General Manager Bruce Allen moved to prepare for Orakpo’s potential departure, selecting outside linebacker Trent Murphy with the franchise’s first pick. Despite strong signs indicating Orakpo and the team are headed in different directions, they’re still together and have work to do. Washington is coming off a 3-13 debacle in which the defense disappointed again. Orakpo is being counted on to help engineer a big turnaround.
Frustrated by his contract situation, Orakpo nonetheless has maintained his focus, approaching his job with the same professionalism and passion he has displayed since Washington selected the former University of Texas standout 13th overall in the 2009 draft. Orakpo’s dedication to his teammates has impressed at least one newcomer to the organization. “He’s been excellent,” Coach Jay Gruden said. “Since the very beginning when I got here, he’s been very positive, very approachable. He’s been to all the meetings and very excited to come to work, practice and get better.”
We’ll have to wait until the regular season to determine whether Orakpo has improved. He had a quiet preseason, recording one sack in three games. In most situations, Orakpo’s lack of production wouldn’t be of interest. After all, he’s an established top-of-the-roster player — not an unproven one who was competing for a spot on the team.
But throughout the offseason, there was so much talk from the team about finally “unleashing” Orakpo, you figured his newfound freedom to rush the passer would produce results. Kerrigan, Washington’s other starting outside linebacker, had three sacks in a strong preseason performance. There’s no other way to put it: Orakpo must get to the quarterback more than he has in the past.
“He understands that,” Gruden said. “We franchised him and gave him what we gave him because we think he’s a hell of a player. We expect great things from him.”
In 64 career games, the three-time Pro Bowler has 391 / 2 sacks. Orakpo has led the team in sacks four times, including sharing the top spot as a rookie.
“’Rak is a good football player,” defensive coordinator Jim Haslett often says. No argument here. Washington, however, is paying Orakpo to be great. Orakpo finally needs to be a difference-maker. Mistakenly, he believes he has been one all along.
“Man, you been here,” Orakpo said. “You seen what I do.”
Orakpo often appears irritated when his sack totals are compared with those of other outside linebackers in 3-4 defensive alignments. Under former head coach Mike Shanahan, many in the organization are eager to point out, Haslett did not have the latitude to let Orakpo rush the passer as much as Haslett and Orakpo would have preferred. With Shanahan gone and Gruden not interested in micromanaging assistant coaches, the expectation is that Haslett will be much more aggressive in utilizing Orakpo and others. “It’s just about putting the players in the best position” to do what they do best, Haslett said.
It all sounds great. But the truth is, Shanahan, contrary to what Washington’s current regime says, wasn’t responsible for everything. Orakpo had plenty of opportunities to make plays. If Orakpo refines his pass-rushing skills, perhaps he’ll make more. Apparently, team management thinks so.
In an effort, in large part, to help Orakpo maximize his potential, Gruden hired respected outside linebackers coach Brian Baker, “who is helping [Orakpo] out a lot,” Gruden said. “We’re happy with what he’s doing . . . [and] excited about the possibilities.”
For years, we’ve heard Orakpo possesses what it takes to become an elite pass rusher, and Washington is paying him like a superstar. It’s time he produced like one.