When Mike Shanahan was building winning football teams with the Denver Broncos, it wasn't hard to identify the face of the franchise — first John Elway and later on players such as Terrell Davis and Shannon Sharpe. The Washington Redskins don't have an Elway or a Davis, but on defense they do have an emerging star.
Brian Orakpo might not have the name recognition of a future Hall of Famer — at least yet — but the linebacker is growing into a vital role on an evolving defense as a playmaker and leader.
"If that [leadership label] is what y'all want to give to me, or my teammates want to, I'm going to embrace it," he said. "I just want to win. That's the most important thing to me right now. So if that role consists of me being more vocal, consists of me leading by example on and off the field, I've got to do what I've got to do."
Orakpo is only in his third season, but his impact on the team and stature within the locker room has been steadily increasing. There's a lot left to learn, though he's now a role model for younger players such as Ryan Kerrigan because he's quickly picked up Jim Haslett's defensive system.
"He's a lot more comfortable, obviously. He's not thinking as much, he's reacting," Haslett said. "Obviously, he has great pass-rush skills and he's powerful and he knows what he's doing on the run. It's night and day from last year."
In the offseason, a list of the league's top pass-rushers came out that dumped Orakpo into the third grouping, well behind the likes of Pittsburgh's James Harrison and Dallas' DeMarcus Ware. The man the Redskins took with the 13th pick in the 2009 draft is using that as "fuel to the fire," he said.
But it doesn't seem like Orakpo — referred to as "Rak" by his teammates — needs external motivation. He has 19 1/2 sacks in two seasons (in two different defensive schemes) and his producing even more in 2011 is seen as natural progression. The Redskins are counting on him for that.
"You need somebody that can make that quarterback get flustered, throw bad balls, not give him the time to sit back there and read and throw layups," cornerback Josh Wilson said. "Rak is a big part of this defense because he brings that pass-rushing ability to the team."
It's already evident how much Orakpo has developed a comfort zone in the 3-4 defense. The 25-year-old cited an ability to play more loosely rather than hesitating and playing tentatively.
That has shown in Orakpo's improved ability to get off blocks and into the backfield.
"He's using his hands really well," Haslett said. "He would use his shoulders once in a while last year. But he's doing a good job with his hand placement. He's powerful and can throw tight ends around."
Selfishly — in a good way — fellow defensive players approve of Orakpo's increased role.
"He's got to be accounted for. I'm sure if you ask any offense, they locate Brian on every play and they understand that he's dangerous," nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "Any attention that's being paid on him is not being paid to me, so it helps."
Orakpo is taking the fast track to becoming not only the best player on defense for the Redskins but an elite NFL linebacker. Still, he's learning on the job in a lot of ways.
Some teammates, including cornerback Kevin Barnes, see London Fletcher as the backbone of the defense because of his spot at middle linebacker and the Pro Bowl appearances on his resume. Orakpo hasn't been shy to rely on Fletcher for help, either.
"I've learned from him what he's brought to the table, what he's done over the years and all the teams he's been on - especially what he's done for this organization," Orakpo said. "That's the first guy that I leaned on, obviously, being a linebacker. He made the transition a lot easier seeing what he does."
Fletcher taught — and still is teaching — Orakpo how to play "faster" and count on his athleticism to produce. In turn, Orakpo has used his brief NFL experience to assist Kerrigan, the Redskins' first-round pick out of Purdue in April who is making the same transition from defensive end to linebacker.
"Rak talks to Ryan all the time about little things — about hand usage, coverage — because Rak went through it last year," Haslett said. "Here's another guy that didn't drop a lot, more of a rush guy and he had a lot to learn. It's kind of fun to have two young guys outside that are big powerful guys that can run and guys that can get to the quarterback."
Orakpo helping Kerrigan with the adjustment is no shock; the Redskins hope their 2011 first-rounder is as quick a study as his mentor. But on the field and off, Orakpo is becoming someone many teammates turn to for advice and leadership.
And that doesn't surprise Fletcher in the least.
"Some guys, you can't force leadership on someone — or they can't try to force it, either. He has natural leadership qualities — he's had it since he came here as a rookie," Fletcher said. "He's just out there really showing his personality."
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