Before the Redskins report to Richmond for training camp on July 24, I’m examining their strengths and questions at each position. Next up: outside linebackers.
Returning starters: LOLB Ryan Kerrigan and ROLB Brian Orakpo
Top reserve: ROLB Rob Jackson
Others: Darryl Tapp, Brandon Jenkins, LOLB Vic So’oto, Ricky Elmore,
Notable departure: Chris Wilson (expired contract, not re-signed)
New faces: Tapp (free agent, Philadelphia), Jenkins (fifth-round pick, Florida St.)
Final cuts history: Mike Shanahan kept four in 2012 and 2010, and he kept five in 2011.
What to like: Orakpo’s return from the left pectoral tear he suffered in Week 2 last season should be a significant boost. He’s Washington’s most imposing, consistent pass rusher. His bull and edge rushes helped him earn consecutive Pro Bowl nominations in his first two NFL seasons, and he understands pass rushing angles. That will help a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL last season in sacks per pass attempt. Orakpo also has improved setting the edge against the run because of his strength and hand placement in warding off blockers. He’s a complete player.
On the other side, Kerrigan made the Pro Bowl last season, his second in the league. The Redskins’ 3-4 defense requires two stellar outside linebackers, and now both of their starters have Pro Bowls to their name. Kerrigan still senses room for improvement, particularly regarding his tracks to the quarterback. By not widening them, he would ensure a shorter route. His fluidity in coverage improved, and that should continue as his awareness grows in his third season.
Jackson established himself last season as a playmaker, particularly in pass defense. His length compensates for a relative lack of explosiveness as a rusher in that he uses his hands well. He also changed several games by making plays on the ball in coverage. He got himself into position to break up or intercept passes, which often is a struggle for converted defensive ends.
Preseason questions: Orakpo spent the offseason talking about how eager he is get back to wreaking havoc. Now he has to prove he’s an elite playmaker in his contract year. Jackson, with his game-changing plays last year, exposed Orakpo’s lack of them. Consider Jackson had four interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in 14 starts. Orakpo, on the other hand, has no interceptions and six forced fumbles in 49 career games. One is a first-round pick, and the other is a seventh-rounder. Orakpo is more of a complete player, but he must re-prove that.
Similarly, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett must find a way to get Jackson on the field with Orakpo and Kerrigan in passing situations. Jackson impacted games too positively last season to waste away on the sideline now that Orakpo is back. Haslett and his staff creatively generated a pass rush at the end of last season, so here’s thinking they’ll thrive using that trio of linebackers.
That, of course, must wait until Jackson serves a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s banned substances policy. He may practice with the team all summer, but he must stay away from the team through the first four regular season games.
The suspension creates an extra opportunity for a roster spot. Jenkins is a frontrunner. He’s a speed edge rusher with a high upside. He missed 13 games last season after suffering a left foot Lisfranc injury in the Seminoles’ opener, but he participated in Washington’s spring practices. He was named first-team All-ACC in 2010 after he had 13.5 sacks at right defensive end.
He’s only 6-2, but his arms measured only a quarter of an inch shorter than those of Kerrigan, who is two inches taller. Jenkins was known for relying heavily on the outside speed rush, so we’ll see if he can diversify his pass rushing arsenal. He’ll also go through the same transitions Orakpo and Kerrigan once did—rushing from a standing position and dropping into pass coverage.