Brian Orakpo is not used to the grind of an NFL season, and he certainly isn’t accustomed to playing the spot he now occupies on the Washington Redskins’ defense.
Orakpo, a consensus All-America end at Texas, has yet to make a huge impact, ranking only eighth on the defense with 15 tackles.
But the 23-year-old strongside linebacker is, however, increasingly exhibiting the natural gifts that made him the 13th choice in April’s draft.
The Kansas City Chiefs can vouch for that. The Chiefs, who face the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field, considered selecting Orakpo with the third overall pick of the draft and appreciate what they see of him now.
“We really liked him,” Chiefs coach Todd Haley said. “I was a little shocked that they were going to play him at linebacker. You could tell early on he wasn’t really comfortable, but he got more and more comfortable as you see the season progress. He looks like he’s going to be a very good player in this league for a long time.”
That’s what the Redskins expect.
Orakpo soon could be one of the senior members of a defense on which linebacker London Fletcher, tackle Cornelius Griffin and ends Phillip Daniels and Andre Carter are in their 30s and cornerback Carlos Rogers, linebacker Rocky McIntosh and safety Reed Doughty are due to become free agents after the season.
“Brian’s doing well,” linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. “He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Everything’s not new now, so when he sees things a second and a third time he understands what’s happening. He’s done a very good job of playing faster. As opposed to looking where he needs to go first, he just goes.”
That wasn’t the case when the season began. Orakpo, who started throughout the preseason, was a little overwhelmed at first, recording just two tackles in the first game.
But by Week 2 of the regular season, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Orakpo was making his presence felt. He several times crashed in on Rams quarterback Marc Bulger to help thwart a late bid by St. Louis for an upset.
“The fourth quarter against St. Louis, when I was able to put pressure on the quarterback, that began it for me,” said Orakpo, who moves to end in most obvious passing situations. “I could sense a difference and was able to get more confidence about my play. I carried that over to the next week.”
Orakpo had four tackles and his first sack in a Week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions, seven tackles and a critical sack in a Week 4 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and two tackles and a half-sack last week.
Orakpo leads all NFL rookies with 2.5 sacks and trails Andre Carter, the Redskins’ leader in that department in each of the past three seasons, by only one.
“When Brian comes off the line of scrimmage, he’s low,” Carter said. “I’ve never seen an edge rusher come off so low. That makes him harder to block.”
As expected, pass coverage has been the biggest challenge for Orakpo, who rarely played in space at Texas. Last week, he was beaten by Panthers tight end Jeff King for a 17-yard touchdown that began Carolina’s comeback from a 17-2 second-half deficit.
Orakpo, who grades himself a “D” so far this season because the Redskins are just 2-3, blamed the touchdown on his “rookie eyes.” Olivadotti, however, wasn’t that upset.
“Brian does need to work on pass coverage, but it’s similar to the situation Rocky had a couple of years ago against the Jets when their tight end got a couple catches on him,” Olivadotti said. “Rocky is now pretty good on the tight end. It’s a growing process. As long as the mistakes are full-speed … I’m not that concerned. Brian does enough good things that make you say, ‘You know what? We’re going to be all right.’ ”
Counting preseason, Orakpo has played 10 weeks straight - something college players don’t endure - and is surprised that he feels all right after doing so without a break. But he’s blessed with youthful flexibility that Carter so admires.
“I’m taking care of my body; that’s the most important thing. Cold tub, hot tub, anything to stay as healthy as possible,” Orakpo said. “It’s very hard for a rookie to be as productive as he wants to be. He’ll go out there and do the best he can, but he’s still learning how to play in the NFL, going against a greater level of talent, just trying to progress week in and week out.”