Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo may yet sign a long-term contract with the team that drafted him five years ago.
In that ideal future, Orakpo, chosen No. 13 overall in the first round of the 2009 draft, would retire in a Washington jersey, bask in the adulation of the home fans at FedEx Field and head into retirement with a handful of franchise records, including most sacks. He has 39.5 in his career and Dexter Manley holds the record at 80.
That day may never come now. Orakpo, 27, and the team couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term contract this past spring. Instead, he was designated as the franchise player and eventually signed a one-year deal worth $11.45 million. That means if he has a big season, Orakpo, a three-time Pro Bowler, can cash in on the open market. But it also means his future in Washington is in flux. But he’s determined not to make his status an issue for his teammates or himself.
“You can talk about contracts and this and that. Throw all that out the window, man,” Orakpo said. “I’m signed for the 2014 season. I need to go out there and make plays. I need to go out there and be a force. That’s what I’ve been working extremely hard at because this defense relies on myself to go out there and make big plays so we can get off the field. I’m not really a pressure guy.”
Orakpo meant pressure in the outside sense — from media, fans and even coaches and front-office staff — because on the field he is very much a pressure guy. He finished with 10 sacks last season to lead the Redskins. That’s the most he’s had since his career-best 11 as a rookie in 2009. He’s never reached double digits outside of those two seasons. Orakpo also recovered two fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown last year. He played in 15 games, another big step after he was limited to just two in 2012 thanks to a pectoral muscle tear.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett remains on staff after the firing of Mike Shanahan following last year’s 3-13 debacle. But Orakpo can expect to be used with more variety this season, according to new coach Jay Gruden. That means less dropping into coverage, less focus on simply containing the opposition’s run game first.
The team also added help on the defensive line with the signing of Jason Hatcher, drafted linebacker Trent Murphy and tried to solidify the secondary with safety Ryan Clark. Brian Baker, who has coached formidable pass rushers throughout his career, was hired to be Gruden’s outside linebackers coach. It remains to be seen if those moves in totality will help Orakpo. But versatility is usually a good thing for any player or team.
“It’s the ability to get matchups,” Gruden said. “You might not want to have Orakpo on the same tackle every down, you might want to put him on the opposite side tackle — you might want to put [Murphy] over there. It’s about matchup football and trying to get your right people on the people you want them to rush against.”
If Orakpo does put together another productive year, the Redskins could easily lose him. Pass rushers on the open market heading into their age-29 season are rare commodities. They will cash in. It’s a risk Washington has prepared for by drafting Murphy, though the team should still be in the mix for Orapko if he becomes a free agent next March.
Throughout the offseason, Orakpo worked with Baker on hand placement. His aggressive style of rushing sometimes leads to envelopment by offensive tackles. Orakpo, in a sense, blocks himself because he gets into the body of men who are bigger than he is. The goal prior to training camp was to keep his speed going around the edge of a blocker, but have better hand placement so he can get past them and to the quarterback.
It’s those little things that he hopes add up to a big season and a payday that keeps him with the Redskins. Few players on the roster have more on the line in 2014.
“These coaches express to me that I’m that guy. I need to go out there and be a force that we all know I can be,” Orakpo said. “Like I said — no pressure on myself. Go out there and do my job. Don’t do more than I can do. But at the same time, go out there and make plays. I got a bad taste in my mouth from last year and that’s something I need to erase.”