- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 1, 2009

Brian Orakpo was celebrating his birthday in style Thursday night - dinner with his fiancee at a sushi restaurant in Austin, Texas - when he really received a reason to party: His agent and the Washington Redskins had agreed on a five-year contract.

Hours later, the 13th pick in April’s draft was on the practice field at Redskin Park to resume his transition from defensive end to starting strongside linebacker and situational pass rusher.

“This has to be [the] No. 1 [birthday],” said Orakpo, who turned 23 on Friday and said his future wife picked up the tab Thursday. “I got the deal done, and my pockets are a little [deeper].”

Much deeper. The contract is worth a maximum $20 million, including a $12.1 million signing bonus. Last year’s 13th overall pick, Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart, received a $10.8 million bonus.

A regular participant in the team’s offseason program, Orakpo figures to catch up quickly after missing only two practices. He went through individual drills in the morning, but his full debut was washed out by afternoon storms.

“One day isn’t much of a problem,” defensive line coach John Palermo said. “He seems to be on top of his stuff at [defensive] end, but the linebacker is more involved.”

Said Redskins executive vice president Vinny Cerrato: “It’s huge just for the learning. To me, any draft pick that misses a lot is going to struggle the first year, so it’s good to get him in here.”

Orakpo’s crash course at linebacker will continue Saturday morning when the Redskins wear pads for the first time. It’s up to Palermo and linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti to determine a game plan so Orakpo gets enough time to learn linebacker while staying sharp as a pass rusher, which likely will be his role on third down.

At Texas, Orakpo was a defensive end, posting 132 tackles and 22 sacks - including 11.5 last year, when he was named Big 12 defensive player of the year.

The Redskins have three full-time left defensive ends - Phillip Daniels, Renaldo Wynn and rookie Jeremy Jarmon. But a third-down package that includes Daniels sliding inside to tackle or coming off the field could provide sack opportunities for Orakpo.

His presence could provide the Redskins’ pass rush with a much-needed boost. The team’s 24 sacks last season were worst in the NFC and tied for fourth-fewest in the NFL, and the line contributed only 19. Despite the lack of pressure, the Redskins still finished seventh in pass defense. In the past five years, the Redskins’ defensive line has averaged 17.2 sacks a season, and the defense hasn’t finished in the top 10 in sacks per attempt since 1999 - including five years of being 26th or worse.

The powerful Orakpo, who once benched 515 pounds, wants to use his skills to win matchups against bigger but less agile offensive tackles. He’ll do this from a four-point stance, which is unconventional in the NFL.

“He likes being in the four-point, sprinter stance - like he’s coming out of the blocks - and most colleges teach that,” Palermo said. “I want to tailor to what he does best. We’re not looking for a wholesale change.”

Said Orakpo: “They’ll do a great job calling plays that will really benefit me and make me comfortable. Whenever it’s time to rush, I’ll get into my stance and do what I do best: Get around the edge and just try to create havoc. Big Albert [Haynesworth] is there to clog it up, and I’ll be out there on an island and hopefully get one-on-ones and use my hands and feet and just go.”

Before getting the chance to rush the quarterback and benefit from Haynesworth’s presence, Orakpo must first serve as a competent strongside linebacker on first and second down.

The beginning of the end of Marcus Washington’s tenure with the Redskins arrived when he was no match for tight ends down the middle of the field. During the Redskins’ organized team activities, Orakpo practiced almost exclusively at linebacker and did not so much as attend a defensive line meeting. For the past month, he participated in seven-on-seven drills at Texas to fine-tune his movements.

“Just seeing him in the spring, he looked fairly smooth with the transition and looked fluid in his movements,” middle linebacker London Fletcher said. “He didn’t look like a fish out of water, so to speak, covering tight ends.”

Teammates welcomed Orakpo by yelling, ” ‘Big Money’ is here,” but Orakpo was more than willing to accept the good-humored taunts.

“I don’t like missing work, but there’s a business side to this, and I’m glad it was done very quick,” he said. “I wanted to get here as fast as I could and get to work.”

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