There was a time when the Washington Redskins were perpetually worried about their defensive front, especially when it came to the pass rush.
When they drafted Brian Orakpo in 2009, those worries faded in the wake of a successful, 11-sack rookie campaign.
That was one head coach and a major defensive scheme change ago, but Orakpo is still poised to become a force at outside linebacker.
When the Redskins swapped out the tried and true 4-3 defense for the vaunted 3-4, Orakpo endured some growing pains. He wasn't just getting after the quarterback or the ball-carrier anymore; he had to drop back into coverage, shade tight ends and protect the flat, among other things.
Orakpo tallied a respectable 8.5 sacks in his second year, but he appeared to be thinking more than reacting and pursuing, which hurt his overall performance.
In the second season of the Washington 3-4, Orakpo looked more comfortable, but he endured more uncalled holding penalties than thought humanly possible and was neutralized as a pure pass-rusher. He battled an ankle injury late in the season and required surgery on his shoulder, injured during the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Nine sacks is a solid total for a hard-fought season but hardly the game-breaking type of production Orakpo was drafted to bring to Washington.
Last season, the NFC East produced three of the top four pass-rushers in the NFL by sack total—outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and defensive ends Jason Babin and Jason Pierre-Paul.
Orakpo came in 22nd on that list, which is not the level of production he or anyone else on the Redskins wanted.
With two season of transition under his belt and an underwhelming season behind him, Orakpo has every reason and all the ability to emerge as an elite 3-4 outside linebacker.
The two defensive ends drafted before him in 2009—Tyson Jackson and Aaron Maybin—have eight sacks between them. Orakpo has been consistent with the Redskins, but consistency is not the end goal for elite pass-rushers unless it involves double-digit sacks and a turnover or two per season.
Washington's defense has had to time adapt to the 3-4 system both in practice and with personnel. There aren't as many square pegs in round holes along the line, and Jim Haslett is comfortable doing different things because he trusts his players.
The Redskins defense suffered from a lackluster offense that kept them on the field too long, leading to their giving up big chunks of yards and, ultimately, points.
Orakpo is not the anchor of the defense, but he needs to be its biggest producer when it comes to pressure and sacks from the outside. He knows he isn't going to get all of the holding calls he deserves, so he has to adjust his attack to get around the way he is being handled.
He may be freakishly strong, but Orakpo needs to add more to his game than raw power to find his ultimate success.
Ryan Kerrigan is entering his second season after a productive rookie year, which puts more pressure on Orakpo to perform. How bad would it look for Kerrigan to excel following the transition to outside linebacker and Orakpo to settle into another solid but unimpressive eight-sack season?
Robert Griffin III brings new life and hope to the offensive side of the ball, and Orakpo should be his equivalent on the defensive side.
With any hope, the frustration of last season will manifest in a statistical eruption to the tune of 18 sacks, but that is purely up to Orakpo and how he recovers from surgery and the sting of last season's failures.
The Redskins defense has the makings of a top-five unit, but it hinges on the performance of their key playmakers, Orakpo in particular. He has to create for himself on pass rushes and make the most of what his teammates open up for him.
Adversity is what reveals true character, and Orakpo said last season, to The Washington Post, that he was "frustrated, man. Pissed off. Tired of losing," following Washington's loss to the Miami Dolphins.
If Orakpo plays with a controlled anger, he could be a scary presence on the field for Washington.
NFL tackles do not have the luxury of being scared of anyone trying to reach their quarterback, but an angry, focused Orakpo is something that should be feared around the league.