It was an otherwise forgettable play, yet for Brian Orakpo, it was significant.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan stepped up in the pocket on the final play of the third quarter on Sunday, looking to make something out of nothing. His path was cut off by Washington Redskins defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, and Orakpo, pursuing Ryan from behind, grabbed the quarterback and pulled him down.
The half-sack, plus one earlier in the game, allowed Orakpo to reach the 10-sack mark on the season — one typically considered the statistical benchmark for a very good pass rusher. He has seven sacks in the last six games, and the performance, albeit late in the season, is setting him up well for a new contract as his rookie deal expires in March.
Orakpo signed a five-year, $15.4 million contract just before training camp opened in 2009, after he was the No. 13 pick in that year’s draft.
He has routinely maintained that he would like to stay in Washington, but with the season not yet over, he has downplayed all talk of what will happen when free agency opens in March.
“I know it’s cliché to say it, and it’s easy to say, but I really do not care about the situation right now,” Orakpo said. “Then, once the season is officially over, come Dec. 30 or whatever the case may be, that when all that stuff — I can start worrying about it. At the same time, I know what’s at stake. I know what’s at hand, but I’m going to play football regardless. That’s what people need to realize.”
Accurately assessing Orakpo’s value on the open market, should he get there, will be difficult. Green Bay outside linebacker Clay Matthews signed a six-year, $69.73 million contract extension with the Packers in April. On the other end of the spectrum, the Cleveland Browns handed Paul Kruger, primarily a backup in four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, a five-year, $40.5 million contract in March.
Orakpo, though, isn’t a typical pass rusher. Within the confines of the Redskins‘ 3-4 defense, he’s asked to help in run support and drop into coverage — something many others, including Matthews, aren’t asked to do.
“I think he’s a heck of a player,” said defensive coordinator Jim Haslett. “I think he’s showed what he’s worth to this organization over four years. He’s been very successful. Obviously, he’s a heck of a rush guy, and the other things he does besides that, he’s outstanding covering tight ends and backs to the flat and in the run game. Him and Ryan are the reason why we’re so successful in the run. It’s hard to get outside with those two.”
Also a factor Orakpo’s value will be his injury history, which includes two pectoral tears sustained within the span of nine months. He tore his left pectoral in the final game of the 2011 season, then did it again in a Week 2 loss to the St. Louis Rams, leaving him out for the rest of the season.
Orakpo was healthy enough to participate in organized workouts last spring, but he said it wasn’t until midway through this season that he finally had moved past the mental hurdles of the injury. His strength and quickness, two of his most salient attributes, lend themselves to a powerful bull rush that he has used effectively to shed blocks, but he was hesitant to extend his arms with the injury weighing on his mind.
In recent games, Orakpo has found success incorporating a variety of inside counters, but has otherwise relied upon his strengths.
“He’s an explosive guy,” said linebackers coach Bob Slowik. “The thing with power is that power doesn’t mean you have to be big. He’s explosive. He’s quick-twitch, boom, gets into you. He’s got six hits, punch, and he surprises people, and he’s got a nice little burst around the edge when he needs to.”
Orakpo’s greatest case for a new contract, either with the Redskins or elsewhere, lies in his performance over the last six games. He has sacked the quarterback seven times, and his total now ranks tied for 11th in the league and fourth in the NFC.