Signing of Perry Riley, Not Brian Orakpo, Key to Washington Defense in 2014

Aidan ReynoldsContributor IIIMarch 14, 2014

Perry Riley has the chance to be the leader of the defense this season.
Perry Riley has the chance to be the leader of the defense this season.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Jay Gruden may have locked up both Perry Riley and Brian Orakpo for Washington through 2014, but it's Riley whose retention carries the most weight. 

The Riley signing may not be as glamorous as Orakpo, but without him the defense had no chance of improving on its painful 2013. As much as Orakpo is a constant threat rushing the passer, his coverage skills are nothing to shout about. Also, on several occasions last year, Orakpo overpursued his man and left gaping holes through which running backs tore.

It was the right move to franchise Orakpo; that's not being disputed here. He adds a presence on the outside that Jim Haslett cannot replicate elsewhere on the roster. In tandem with Ryan Kerrigan, he provides the team with a balanced and effective rush.

However, Washington has survived without him before. Not just survived, either, but thrived. In 2012, Orakpo was sidelined from Week 2 and his team finished atop the NFC East.

Rob Jackson's strong point isn't rushing the passer, but in Orakpo's place he responded with four interceptions—the most important of which being the fourth quarter interception of Tony Romo in Week 17 that brought the division to DC.

It's pressure the team needs, though, and Jackson isn't the answer there. As Rich Tandler observed for CSN WashingtonJackson's 4.5 sacks disguised the fact that he only notched up two hits and 10 hurries through 14 games. 

Washington needs Orakpo for aggression and versatility, but it needs Riley for the fans' sanity.

Replacing Riley and London Fletcher in the same season would have had a disastrous effect on Haslett's scheme. Keenan Robinson hasn't managed to contribute much except two pectoral tears, so the depth behind Riley is already thin. 

Free-agent inside linebackers are thin on the ground this year, and new signing Adam Hayward's value lies more on special teams. Riley knew his value to Washington was more than his value to other teams. Nevertheless, the reported three-year, $13 million deal represents real value for Gruden and Bruce Allen, while Riley also received a deal that genuinely reflects his true value.

He's not an All-Pro linebacker, but he knows the system and has the potential to thrive in a leadership role. He surpassed Fletcher as the team's leading tackler last year and was handed more in the way of leadership responsibilities. 

Riley is dependable against both the run and the pass, and taking on a senior role among the linebackers will benefit both himself and those under his tutelage. All the draft talk has been of either Shayne Skov of Stanford or Wisconsin's Chris Borland, and both would slot in nicely next to Riley.

Riley will be 26 when the new season begins, and the fact that he has played all his professional career in DC means he should be embarking on the next phase of his career. Although he's an unflashy player who can easily go unnoticed, his strengths lie in leading by example, as well as emphasizing hard work and discipline over highlight reel hits.

There isn't anyone on the roster who can offer the same blend of youth, experience and a strong work ethic at the linebacker position. We saw in 2013 that disciplined tackling was an aberration among defensive players in DC. Without Riley, there's absolutely no question that teams will roll over the Washington defense again.

Riley was drafted by Mike Shanahan to be Fletcher's successor. Shanahan may be gone,  but now is the time to repay his coach's faith.