Is Brian Orakpo Worth a Massive Contract from Washington?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 8, 2014

As free agency gets underway, the Washington Redskins are finally free from the salary-cap sanctions that handcuffed them on the open market the last two years. That means a lot of fans will be hoping that the 'Skins use a healthy chunk of what Spotrac projects to be over $30 million in salary-cap space on veterans who can fill holes throughout the roster. 

After all, the team is once again without a first-round draft pick as a result of the 2012 trade for the pick that was used on Robert Griffin III. Free agency might not be the key to success in this league, but the Redskins have money to spend and little choice but to swing the bat.

However, they'd be able to swing a lot more freely if $11.455 million of their cap money wasn't currently committed to outside linebacker Brian Orakpo. That's the price of the franchise tag, which at said rate would cost the team over $1 million for every sack Orakpo recorded in 2013. 

What's more, Orakpo and his agent could make an argument that he deserves defensive end franchise-tag money, which would cost the team a total of $13.116 million for one season.

That's a lot of money to guarantee a guy over the course of a long-term deal, let alone a one-year tender, which is why the Redskins will undoubtedly have to cough up a lot of dough in order to lessen that 2014 burden by securing their best defensive player with a multiyear contract. 

Early indications from NFL Media's Ian Rapoport were that Orakpo had no immediate plans to sign the tender, which could mean he's ready to play hardball with Bruce Allen and Co. Only 24 starting pass-rushers in football have contracts that guarantee more total cash than Orapko would rake in this season alone under the linebacker franchise tag, which means the 27-year-old is sort of in a win-win situation.

That doesn't mean it's a lose-lose for Washington, but the team has a lot more to lose than Orakpo. It could take the tag off the table before Orakpo signs the tender, which I suppose is leverage, but that would of course expose its top sack man to what is expected to be a very active open market with the league-wide salary cap rising by 8.1 percent to an all-time high of $133 million. 


Define massive

If we're strictly defining a pass-rusher as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end, here are the highest-paid men from that field:

NFL's highest-paid pass rushers
PlayerAvg. salary ($M)Guaranteed ($M)
Mario Williams16.024.9
Julius Peppers14.019.9
Clay Matthews13.220.5
Trent Cole12.114.5
Charles Johnson12.732.0
Chris Long12.123.6
Tamba Hali11.535.0
DeMarcus Ware11.125.6

Now, what had all of those "elite" rushers done that led to such hefty contracts? Let's take a look while comparing their resumes to Orakpo's.

What they did to earn their cash
PlayerSignedSacks in previous yearPRP in previous year
PRP: Pass rushing productivity rate (Pro Football Focus)

The strange thing is that Orakpo is right there with Williams and Peppers, who are the two highest-paid players on the list, but he has obvious disadvantages when compared to Matthews, Cole, Johnson, Hali and Ware. But considering that he's 27 and brings a lot more than just sacks to the table, he might actually legitimately be on the cusp of that range. 


So, what might Orakpo be looking for?

Well, based on the above breakdown, something in the massive range. His sack numbers aren't as high as anyone would like, but don't forget that Orakpo doesn't rush on every snap.

In fact, he rushed only 78.1 percent of the time in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which was quite low in comparison to other notable 3-4 rushers such as Terrell Suggs (90.7), Robert Mathis (92.2) and John Abraham (87.4). 

Plus, his pressure numbers have been solid. In his last two full seasons, Orakpo has ranked fifth among 3-4 outside linebackers in terms of pass-rushing productivity. 

Pass-rushing productivity, 2011 and 2013 (3-4 OLBS)
1. Jerry Hughes15.41. Aldon Smith15.4
2. Elvis Dumervil15.12. James Harrison13.6
3. Justin Houston14.13. Cameron Wake12.9
4. Tamba Hali12.24. DeMarcus Ware12.9
5. Brian Orakpo11.35. Brian Orakpo12.2
5. John Abraham11.36. Clay Matthews11.3
7. Robert Mathis11.17. Tamba Hali11.1
8. Jason Worilds10.48. Ryan Kerrigan10.3
Pro Football Focus

Considering that along with his Pro Bowls, his sack numbers, his age, his upside, his versatility and his overall value to this team, you’d have to think that Orakpo would require the Redskins to pay him at least $10 million per year with $20 million guaranteed.

Considering that they’d probably save several million bucks up front and that the overall guarantee couldn’t possibly be more than about twice the franchise tag they’d be paying him for one season, I’d have to think the Redskins would eventually agree to something close to that. But I can understand why there would be trepidation.


What is Orakpo worth?

Here's the thing: He's worth what someone—in this case, Bruce Allen—is willing to pay for him. That's how this free market works. A lot of people look at Orakpo's numbers and conclude that he's not worthy of being paid like a superstar, but this has as much to do with circumstances as it does production. 

The Redskins have one of the worst defenses in football, and yet Orakpo is that unit's best player. It's not even close, actually, and so Orakpo is in the right place at the right time.

Redskins: With and without Orakpo since 2011
Sacks/gameSack %
With Orakpo2.47.0
Without Orakpo1.94.8
Pro Football Reference

The 'Skins simply can't afford to take a step backward on the defensive side of the ball, and Orakpo's rookie contract expired just as he was coming off the hottest seven-game stretch of his NFL career. 

Most sacks, second half of 2013
1. Greg HardyPanthers10
2. Justin TuckGiants9.5
3. Robert QuinnRams9
4. John AbrahamCardinals8.5
5. Trent ColeEagles8
5. Robert MathisColts8
7. Brian OrakpoRedskins7
7. Jared AllenVikings7
7. Jerry HughesBills7
Pro Football Reference

On the other hand, former Colts general manager Bill Polian recently wrote a piece for ESPN Insider (subscription required) in which he establishes some dos and don'ts for free agency. And the 'Skins might be on the verge of violating three separate don'ts:

7. Don't pay a player above his grade.

Don't give A-money (or years) to a B-player, and so on down the line. As discussed at the start of this article, the free-agent market as a whole is almost always a losing investment. Just because another team is willing to give a player a certain contract doesn't mean he's worth that price to your team. There is no universal price for a player because every player has a different value to each team. You need to trust your internal valuations and proceed off those figures, not the market.

I'm suggesting the Redskins have no choice but to sign Orakpo long-term or at least pay him his $11.5 million as a franchise player. Since he's 27 and a big name with three Pro Bowls under his belt, he'll inevitably receive a deal that exceeds his "grade." 

10. Don't give a long-term contract to players with a significant injury history.

Significant injuries would include multiple major surgeries or concussions, or degenerative joint disease -- as diagnosed by a team physician in the physical. If a player has not averaged 12 games or more in the last two seasons, that is also cause to steer clear.

Orakpo has suffered two major pectoral injuries in two years, the second of which cost him virtually the entire 2012 campaign. But he was healthy and productive in 2013, so the 'Skins have to break that rule too. 

11. Do beware of players whose production dramatically increases in their contract year.

If a player is lousy for three years and then spikes in Year 4 and becomes a world-beater, be careful. You're more likely to get the production from those first three seasons, but you'll be paying for the results of the fourth. It's not a knock on the effort of the first three years, it's a trust in the bigger sample size.

This won't have a chance to hurt the 'Skins if Orakpo plays with the tag in 2014 because he'll be in another contract year. But this was a bounce-back season for the guy, and he was at his best down the stretch. I don't know if that was necessarily him playing for a contract, but money does light fires under guys. 

Now, those rules aren't hard and fast, and they are generally aimed at teams playing the market with free agents from other teams. This situation is different, but the point is that there's still a lot of murkiness regarding what the Redskins should and shouldn't do, mainly because Orakpo possesses plenty of red flags but is also a great player with a hell of a high ceiling. 

This is a unique situation—one there really aren't a lot of precedents for. 

Orakpo still hasn't been able to match the 11 sacks he put up as a rookie five years ago, and players at his position generally make their money hitting quarterbacks.

How can a guy with 39.5 sacks and only seven forced turnovers in 64 games over a five-year period be considered a game-changer, thus meriting a "massive" contract? Throw in the injury history, and you can see why it's so tough to gauge his value. 

He could be on the verge of a sacksplosion, especially based on what we saw during the second half of the 2013 campaign. But maybe that was just a hot streak in a contract year.

How often do pass-rushers break out this late? Here's a look at what happened to the game's top-four active sack artists along with Cole and Hali (who are the only other guys from the above list over the age of 30) before and after the age of 28. Orakpo turns 28 this offseason. 

Sacks per game, top active sack artists
PlayerBefore turning 28After turning 28
John Abraham1.300.77
Jared Allen1.140.88
Julius Peppers1.470.66
DeMarcus Ware1.090.86
Trent Cole0.880.52
Tamba Hali0.670.70
Brian Orakpo0.69?
Pro Football Reference

So what if his sack total doesn't explode? As we noted earlier, there's more to Orakpo than that. He brings a lot of pressure in general, which helps sidekick Ryan Kerrigan quite a bit. He also played over 100 snaps in coverage last season, proving to be one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in that area, and he missed only five tackles on 827 total snaps, per PFF

So there are significant factors that support Orakpo getting a big payday, and there are several key factors working to his disadvantage. I think the tiebreaker, though, might be that the Redskins' hands are tied. 

Washington knows that, which is why the the tag is in place. He's getting big bucks regardless now, and the market paved the way for that. With so much cap space and so many issues on defense, the 'Skins have committed to Orakpo. The question now is whether they'll pay up long-term right now or wait. 

If they wait, at least we'll have a chance to get a better feel for Orakpo's value in 2014. 


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