Washington Redskins Can't Let Brian Orakpo Go

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Washington Redskins Can't Let Brian Orakpo Go
Richard Lipski/Associated Press

On Monday in Baltimore, 75 miles northeast of the Washington Redskins' team headquarters in Ashburn, Va., the Ravens pretty much ensured that top pass-rusher Terrell Suggs would spend the rest of his career with the team by signing him to a fresh contract extension, per the Baltimore Sun

Back inside the Beltway, the Redskins would be smart to take a page from their closest NFL neighbor's book by wrapping up top defensive player Brian Orakpo right here, right now. 

The 27-year-old Orakpo is entering his prime just as he prepares to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11. The 'Skins have three weeks to prevent that from happening. Top-end pass-rushers in their prime don't come cheap, but Washington has little choice in this matter. 

If the Redskins want to get better, they have to retain Orakpo, who enters the 2014 offseason on the biggest roll of his career with seven sacks in seven games. 

The numbers speak volumes. He may have had "only" 10 sacks in total in 2013 but keep in mind that Orakpo was coming off of a 2012 season that was derailed almost entirely by a torn pectoral muscle. Getting re-acclimated took time, as he noted in a November interview with ESPN.com's John Keim

When you miss a year, your normal routine is just not the same. Going out there and playing full games, man, it’s different. That means your vision is not correct, your tackling is not up to par as you’d like it to be. Everything comes into play and you can see that. Even though I’m still feeling good, I want to do more. As the season progresses, that’s when I start to play a lot better and make more plays. That’s what I mean when I talk about getting the rust off.

Despite that, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Orakpo was the fourth-best 3-4 outside linebacker in football in 2013.

Pro Football Focus: Top-rated 3-4 OLBs, 2013
Player Team PFF grade
1. Justin Houston Chiefs 31.8
2. Robert Mathis Colts 31.4
3. Elvis Dumervil Ravens 27.4
4. Brian Orakpo Redskins 24.9
5. Aldon Smith 49ers 23.6

PFF

And while he didn't even play in Week 17, only six players in football had more sacks than Orakpo during the second half of his fifth pro season. 

Most sacks, second half of 2013
Player Team Sacks
1. Greg Hardy Panthers 10
2. Justin Tuck Giants 9.5
3. Robert Quinn Rams 9
4. John Abraham Cardinals 8.5
5. Trent Cole Eagles 8
5. Robert Mathis Colts 8
7. Brian Orakpo Redskins 7
7. Jared Allen Vikings 7
7. Jerry Hughes Bills 7

Pro Football Reference

Don't forget that Orakpo doesn't rush on every snap. In fact, he rushed on only 78.1 percent of his defensive snaps in 2013, according to PFF (subscription required), which was quite low in comparison to other notable 3-4 rushers such as Suggs (90.7), Robert Mathis (92.2) and John Abraham (87.4). 

He's an invaluable member of this franchise because of his ability to get pressure on the quarterback, but his versatility is a bonus. It's hard to find a better rush-oriented outside linebacker in coverage, where he spent over 100 snaps in 2013, and his run defense has improved steadily. The guy missed only five tackles on 827 total snaps last year, per PFF (subscription required). 

That—along with the fact he spent all but 12 pass-rushing snaps lined up against the opponent's left tackle—is why his sack and pressure totals aren't indicative of how valuable Orakpo is. But PFF concluded (subscription required) that on a per-snap basis, he was the fifth-most productive pass-rusher at his position last year. And he was consistent throughout the year in that respect, gaining at least three pressures in 10 of his 15 starts. 

PFF's most productive pass rushers (3-4 OLBs), 2013
Player Team PRP
1. Jerry Hughes Bills 15.4
2. Elvis Dumervil Ravens 15.1
3. Justin Houston Chiefs 14.1
4. Tamba Hali Chiefs 12.2
5. Brian Orakpo Redskins 11.3

PRP = Pass rushing productivity

The thing about Orakpo is that the sky remains the limit. He's only four full seasons into his career, but he's received little support. He isn't the most explosive rusher in the game, but there's nothing he doesn't do well. And he's instinctive, which indicates he should improve as he continues to improve his technique. 

Two particularly impressive sacks from the second half of the season were one-man efforts. The first came against Minnesota's Matt Kalil in Week 10...

NFL Game Pass

And the second was against Will Beatty of the Giants in Week 13...

NFL Game Pass

They may have won a mere three games last year, but the window is open for this Washington team to become a contender. They have the franchise-caliber superstar quarterback, the bright young coaching staff and an ideal core of players to build around. Orakpo is a key part of that core. 

Losing him now, regardless of how good Ryan Kerrigan might be, would represent a step backwards, which has to be avoided if they're going to bounce back from a tumultuous 2013 campaign in order to contend in the immediate future. 

When was the last time a true Super Bowl contender wasn't carried by a top-of-the-line pass rush?

The Broncos and Seahawks weren't known for their defensive fronts (especially with Von Miller injured and Elvis Dumervil gone) but they were both above the league average with 40 or more sacks in 2013. And when Seattle took Denver out in the Super Bowl, pressure spurred by Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Chris Clemons provided the ignition. 

After recording just 13 sacks during the first eight games of the season, the Baltimore Ravens had 33 sacks during the final 12 games (including playoffs) of their 2012 Super Bowl campaign. Suggs came back from injury and wreaked havoc at times down the stretch. 

Eli Manning gets so much love for the New York Giants winning two championships in a five-year span before that, but those teams don't come close to winning those Super Bowls without the heroic efforts of top pass-rushers Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and—in the latter case—Jason Pierre-Paul. In that first Super Bowl season, the Giants led the league with 53 sacks. The next time around, they finished third with 48.

The Steelers and Packers met in the Super Bowl in 2010. Pittsburgh led the AFC with 48 sacks, while Green Bay led the NFC with 47. Pittsburgh also had an AFC-high 51 sacks when it won the Super Bowl in 2008. 

We're talking about teams led by guys like Suggs, Tuck, Umenyiora, Pierre-Paul, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Clay Matthews. When the Saints won it all in 2010, they had Will Smith and his 13 sacks. They beat the Colts, who featured Dwight Freeney and his 13.5. Only three other players in football had 13 or more that year. 

All five Super Bowl winners between 2007 and 2011 had at least one player with 13 or more sacks, which says a lot considering only 28 players in total were able to hit that mark during that half-decade span. 

You get the picture.

Super Bowl winners know how to sack the quarterback
Year Winner Sacks Rank NFL average
2013 Seahawks 44 8th 41
2012 Ravens 37 15th 37
2011 Giants 48 3rd 37
2010 Packers 46 5th 35
2009 Saints 35 15th 34
2008 Steelers 51 2nd 32
2007 Giants 53 1st 34

Pro Football Reference

The Redskins have a bad secondary, and it won't get better overnight. But teams with deficiencies in the defensive backfield can still contend. Teams without top-quality pass rushes rarely do. With Kerrigan and Orakpo in place, Washington can mask its problems elsewhere on defense and make a run as early as 2014. 

Without Orakpo, I'm not sure that's possible. 

So if need be, utilize that franchise tag by the March 3 deadline. Or just find a way to get a deal done before March 11 arrives. It's too risky not to. It'll be pricey, but that's the cost of doing business at impact positions in this league, and I can't think of a better thing to do with the $25 million worth of cap space Spotrac says the 'Skins have. 

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