A player going into a contract year or playing on a franchise tag is supposed to prove he deserves a lucrative long-term deal. If he is motivated, talented and healthy enough, he usually does. When he doesn't, dollars typically turn to dust.
Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo hits free agency next week after an underwhelming 2014 season as Washington’s franchise player. In seven games, Orakpo registered half of a single sack before tearing his pectoral muscle.
Normally, injury and production concerns in a contract year would kill his value, but Orakpo’s market value should be relatively unaffected by it. The rarity of pass-rushers leads to them getting lucrative contracts even with obvious red flags, especially since Orakpo doesn't turn 29 until July.
It's rare for top pass-rushers to hit the market before their 30th birthdays, and Orakpo still qualifies on both fronts. He might not be among the league's best, but he can come in and help a defense that desperately needs a pass-rusher.
A Top Pass-Rusher?
A down year in 2014 is certainly worth examining. It's important to consider that sacks are not everything and scheme matters. Washington fired defensive coordinator Jim Haslett, for example.
|Free Agent Pass-Rushers|
|Players||Free Agent||2014 Sacks||Sacks/Games Since 2009||2015 Age|
|Brian Orakpo||March 10||0.5||.62||29|
|Jason Pierre-Paul||Franchise Tag||12.5||.50||26|
Despite having a down year, Orakpo will still be the best pass-rusher on the market. Of the 19 players with more sacks per game than Orakpo since 2009 (minimum 50 games), only LaMarr Woodley is or will be a free agent.
Woodley will be 31 in November and had no sacks in six games with the Oakland Raiders in 2014. He’s been in steady decline. Orakpo's performance seems a bit flukier, but, like Woodley, he's missed a lot of time due to injury.
Tamba Hali could become available, but he's 32. Jason Pierre-Paul is just behind Orakpo, but the New York Giants gave him the franchise tag. He’s a little younger, but he has had similarly fluky seasons.
|28 or Younger with 40+ Sacks (Active Players)|
Orakpo's sack total is deceptively low, but that doesn't mean he isn't making an impact. In 2013, seven of his 10 sacks were from Week 9 onward. It’s not uncommon to see sacks come in bunches, which was certainly the case with him.
A Well-Rounded Player
One of the other things about Orakpo is that he doesn’t go after the quarterback at the expense of the run. In 2013, Pro Football Focus graded Orakpo as the fourth-best 3-4 outside linebacker overall and against the run.
|Well-Rounded Pro Football Focus Grades|
|Pro Football Focus|
In 2014, Orakpo was similarly effective against the run. In fact, his run-stop percentage was 7.9, compared to 6.7 in 2013. There's evidence that Orakpo is doing exactly what he should be doing depending on the game situation.
For example, Orakpo's half-sack came in a 41-10 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Five of the other six games were losses, including a couple of blowouts. The other win was the game Orakpo got hurt in, so it's hard to fault him for not getting to the quarterback with regularity.
This is what teams want in a player. He does what's necessary and not what's good for his own stats. Orakpo could easily be selfish and chase stats, but he isn't that type of player.
Given his ability, it's no wonder he's already getting interest around the league. For every two teams we know are interested at this time of year, there are probably a few more we don't know about.
At least four teams are already interested in Orakpo, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. The Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars are the only ones that have been reported, but we know there are more.
It's also telling that, despite his down year, Washington would like to have Orakpo back if the price is right. Even with a strong crop of pass-rushers in the draft and a high draft pick, new general manager Scot McCloughan is willing to keep Orakpo.
Given the close ties between the Jaguars, the Falcons, Washington and the Seahawks, it wouldn't be surprising if people saw Orakpo a bit like they did pass-rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril in 2013— undervalued pass-rushers who just need the right schemes to unlock their potential. You can never have enough pass-rushers, so Orakpo is going to get a lot of calls.
Despite his injury history, Orakpo should see a strong market for his services. Strong markets usually result in sizable contracts. When Orakpo finally does sign, his underwhelming season will be a distant memory.