It’s nothing new for Redskins fans. For years we’ve been referred to as the fans with baseless excitement. Every offseason is our playoff run. Large contracts, big-name acquisitions and training camp hoopla pump us full of phony optimism that somehow instills belief that a Super Bowl is right around the corner.
And even after being let down year after year, that thought process remains intact. The difference this season, however, is that acquiring one of the most electrifying athletes to ever come to Washington has given that excitement some legs.
But even with a quarterback that has rejuvenated this city unlike any of those before him, an interesting question endures.
What player on the Redskins roster is most responsible for the team’s success in 2012?
The assumed answer is Robert Griffin III. The more factual answer is linebacker Brian Orakpo.
While good quarterbacks play arguably the most significant role on a football team and great ones drastically increase their team’s chances of making a Super Bowl, they’re not necessarily required. For every Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning, there’s a Jake Delhomme, Rex Grossman or Trent Dilfer.
Personally, I’m one that invests a lot into the offensive line. I generally believe that football begins in the trenches and works its way outward, yet always keeping in mind what an elite quarterback, shutdown corner or freakish wide receiver can do for a football team.
When first asked the question, my immediate response was left tackle Trent Williams. With a rookie quarterback at the helm and my predetermined philosophy of positional importance, the offensive line was an easy starting point. Not to mention, Williams is responsible for the blind side of the Redskins’ right-handed quarterback. And not just any quarterback. The quarterback that was acquired by selling the farm and the people that live on it.
However, an offensive line functions as a unit. It can’t be up to one guy. Even if you have an elite talent at left tackle, surrounding him with D-III guards, a fat kid at center and Joe Schmo at right tackle will ultimately result in a mauled quarterback that would be lucky to make it through Week 3.
For this reason, saying that Trent Williams needs to have a good season is obvious. But in order for his work and skill to shine through, the rest of the offensive line needs to show up on Sundays. So, despite his colossal nickname, The Silverback can’t protect Griffin all by himself.
Following that theory, I began to think about the Redskins’ area of weakness. Unfortunately, the team is weak in more than one area, but I swayed to the secondary. In particular, cornerbacks.
Relevant to the position—legitimate shutdown corners aren’t a common find in the NFL. Outside of Darrelle Revis, Nnamdi Asomugha, Champ Bailey and maybe Charles Woodson, who else can you trust enough to put on an island with, say, Calvin Johnson?
While having a shutdown corner in your secondary is mostly rewarding and surely comforting, it’s not necessarily the key to a ring.
Sticking with the model of forming a football team from the inside out, perhaps I should also contend for the defensive trench. And it’s a fair argument. More pressure from the front seven can improve the effectiveness of an entire secondary, which then led me to the defensive line.
If there’s one position or unit on the Redskins roster that feels solidified, it’s the defensive line.
Defensive end Stephen Bowen was signed away from the division rival Cowboys last summer and he didn’t miss a beat, recording 41 tackles and six sacks. Opposite Bowen was Adam Carriker, who had a career year with 34 tackles and 5.5 sacks. And another acquisition from last offseason, Barry Cofield, held down the middle, recording 25 tackles and three sacks in his first year playing the nose tackle position.
Add last year’s production to the fact that Jarvis Jenkins is set to return with refreshed explosiveness—the same stuff we saw last year before losing him to an ACL tear—and you’re looking at a damn good defensive front.
That said, it’s not the line’s primary responsibility in a 3-4 scheme to get after the quarterback and force bad throws. That’s on the linebackers. The scheme itself also presents a confusing blitz package, making it harder on the passer and often times a field day for edge-rushers.
Finally, I shift to the linebacking corps.
Last season, rookie Ryan Kerrigan was an absolute beast. Not only did he play every defensive snap of the year, but he also made the transition from defensive end to linebacker with hardly a hiccup. This season—with a full training camp to prepare and a year of experience under his belt—Kerrigan is due for a big season. (Not that 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles is a bad outing for a rook.)
On the opposite side of Kerrigan is fourth-year man Brian Orakpo. Despite his nine sacks last season, I go against the majority in already labeling him "elite".
Is he very good? Yes. But he’s not on the dynamic level of DeMarcus Ware or Jason Pierre-Paul. Not yet.
The importance of an elite pass-rusher in the NFL has continued to grow in recent years. At this point, most would probably argue that having a DeMarcus Ware is better than having a Darrelle Revis, but everyone has his own opinion. What people can’t deny is the fact that dynamic pass-rushers can absolutely change a game. And that’s what the Redskins need from Orakpo.
While his production thus far has been effective, Orakpo hasn’t peaked. In addition to carrying the normal expectations that come with being a top-NFL draft pick, Orakpo also came out in 2009 and recorded 11 sacks as a rookie. Naturally, forecasting and expectancy sky-rocketed. Orakpo was (and still is) being compared to the league’s best.
With his improvement over the offseason and natural progression as a football player, Orakpo is arguably the Redskins’ most critical piece this season. His applied pressure improves the team’s skeptical secondary, his refined rush moves will make life easier for the guys up front, and his overall production aims to give RG3 and the offense a better field to work with.
It’s not as if Orakpo has been anything close to the shy type since arriving in Washington, but on Tuesday he sounded particularly encouraging when it came to personal expectations this season.
“Obviously, there’s some stuff I would like to work on,” Orakpo said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not going to divert from my game. Instead of just working on my pass rush, I want to work on everything. My run defense, pass drops everything it takes to be an elite player.”
And the Redskins’ success this season is dependent on it.
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