Washington Redskins: Is Brian Orakpo Still an Elite Player?

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Washington Redskins: Is Brian Orakpo Still an Elite Player?
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Brian Orakpo's productivity has been on a steady decline over the past two seasons.

The Washington Redskins overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday was marked by a lot of plays that the Redskins almost made.

Graham Gano almost made two field goals, either of which would have given Washington a victory.

Anthony Armstrong almost made a spectacular touchdown catch that would have given the Redskins a 24-10 lead early in the third quarter.

Ryan Kerrigan almost picked-off Dallas quarterback Tony Romo but instead tipped the ball and watched it fall into the hands of a Cowboys receiver.

But one Redskins player who made almost no plays at all was All-Pro linebacker Brian Orakpo. What's especially scary for Redskins fans is Orakpo's lackluster performance is not an aberration but a continuation of a streak in which his productivity has taken a sharp nosedive.

On Sunday, Orakpo recorded zero sacks and zero hits on the quarterback, and at no point in the game did he put any sort of disruptive pressure on Romo. This helped account for Romo's three touchdown passes and zero interception performance.

It was the second game in a row in which Orakpo failed to play like the significant defensive force he wants to be known as. He now has a mere 5.5 sacks on the season, a number that ties him with seven other players for the 23rd most sacks in the league. To put that number in perspective, consider the fact that ex-Redskin Andre Carter has nine sacks on the year. 

It's not that Orakpo didn't have opportunities on Sunday; rather he just failed to capitalize on them when his team needed him the most.

On the play that produced the Cowboys final touchdown, Orakpo had a chance to make an impact. Romo dropped back on a 3rd-and-long, and Orakpo found himself in a one-on-one situation with Cowboys left tackle Doug Free.

Romo looked downfield before spinning out of the pocket towards Orakpo's side of the field. But Orakpo could not shake loose from Free or get close enough to Romo to disrupt his rhythm. Free gave Romo enough time to find Jason Witten downfield for a 59-yard touchdown pass.

Plays like that make you wonder if Orakpo has the chops to be a consistently elite pass rusher in the NFL. Free is a better than average left tackle and Romo is more agile than the average NFL quarterback, but that doesn't excuse Orakpo from allowing Free to get the best of him all afternoon or from failing to put a single hit on Romo.

It's too early to jump to conclusions about Orakpo or to definitively discern what's behind his lack of productivity. Lord knows that today's NFL is buttressed by a surplus of cheap, week-to-week analysis which favors flavor of the week thinking over robust, long-term analysis. But anyone who does step back and looks at the larger picture may start to question whether Orakpo deserves to be included on the list of elite NFL pass rushers.

As a rookie, Orakpo announced his arrival with a splash by recording 11.5 sacks and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. In his second season in the league, his productivity declined slightly—he only recorded 8.5 sacks—but that decline could be partially attributed to Washington’s switch from a 4-3 defensive front to a 3-4 set. He was still named an All-Pro, and Redskins management felt that despite all the other roster deficiencies, they had a dominating pass rusher on whom they could count.

Coming into this season, Orakpo seemed determined to make good on the potential he displayed in his first two seasons. He undertook boxing and MMA training to improve his technique. When ESPN published a list of the NFL’s top 10 pass rushers and Orakpo failed to garner a single vote, he posted a response on Twitter in which he pledged to “kill the league next season.”

Thus far, the only ones getting killed are the Redskins, and Orakpo’s inability to threaten opposing quarterbacks is a big reason why.

Considering the Redskins current scheme, Orakpo’s lack of sacks is even more puzzling. In the offseason, the team added Ryan Kerrigan, a solid pass rusher in his own right.

Kerrigan’s presence means opposing teams now have to account for two exterior threats, and therefore cannot double-team Orakpo as often as they otherwise would.

Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett continues to blitz early and often, meaning opposing offensive lineman are forced to scramble, and Orakpo is often left with favorable matchups.

Despite all these favorable conditions, Orakpo’s play has taken a significant step back, and if he doesn’t find a way to regain his old form, Redskins management may want to consider trading him.

Again, that may seem like a knee-jerk reaction but consider the following. If the Redskins take a quarterback in the upcoming draft, as many analysts rightly assume they will, it is likely that quarterback will take several years to develop—not every rookie can be Andy Dalton or Cam Newton.

If that happens, it might make more sense for the Redskins to trade Orakpo for several more draft picks and hope those players peak at the same time as their young quarterback, than to retain an outside linebacker whose pass rushing abilities seem to be on the decline.

It’s not like the Redskins don’t have other pass rushing options. If Orakpo was to leave the team, Haslett could simply shift Kerrigan over to the right side of the defensive line.

At this point in the season, ESPN’s omission of Orakpo from their elite pass rushers list seems incredibly prescient. To make an analogy, if the Cowboys DeMarcus Ware, who sacked Rex Grossman during a crucial stretch of Sunday’s game, is akin to a Division I football team, Orakpo is merely Division I-A. And if he can’t start getting to the quarterback he could get relegated to Division I-AA.

Achievements on a football field are not measured on an even scale. A quarterback who consistently leads teams on game-winning fourth-quarter drives is more highly valued than a quarterback who performs well through the first three quarters then folds in crunch time.

This same type of logic applies to linebackers. Orakpo’s 2.5 sack performance against the hapless St. Louis Rams padded his stats, but that doesn’t excuse his lack of productivity against tougher opponents.

Coming into Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, Orakpo told the media he wanted to raise his level of play against divisional opponents—throughout his career he’s only recorded half a sack against NFC East foes. Unfortunately, Orakpo could not live up to the expectations he set for himself.

Fans living in the Washington, D.C., area are probably familiar with the GEICO commercial in which Orakpo plays scrabble with the ubiquitous GEICO caveman and defines the word “Orakpoed” as another word for sacked. That definition worked well in 2009, but unless Orakpo can turn it around, I vote it be changed to “hoodwinked into thinking you have an elite outside linebacker when that wasn’t the case at all.”

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