Armed with a new contract, Ryan Kerrigan can now set his sights on making history for the Washington Redskins. The outside linebacker can become the first Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year award winner in franchise history.
It's one of the more remarkable statistical anomalies that the Redskins have never had an AP Defensive POY winner since the award came into being in 1971, per Pro-Football-Reference.
Granted, the franchise has often been best defined by talented players on the other side of the ball, men like Art Monk, Larry Brown and John Riggins. Yet it's not as if there has been a shortage of defensive stalwarts.
The likes of Ken Houston, Dave Butz, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann and Darrel Green were all dominant performers at their respective positions, just never quite dominant enough for league-wide recognition it seems.
Kerrigan can change all of that. He's got the pass-rushing chops to put up the type of statistics needed to scoop the award.
For a sobering indicator of what award-winning stats look like, consider the numbers of the last four winners:
Kerrigan not only has the skills to reach this level, he also has the production. At least, he has the progress in production to indicate he'll soon post numbers worthy of an award.
A breakdown of Kerrigan's career production reveals three key traits about the player the Redskins drafted in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft, award-winning traits:
|Past 4 Defensive POY Award Winners by the Numbers|
What you see first and foremost is a player who has shown improvement in at least one key area every year he's been in the league. That's the real barometer of a player who belongs among the elite at his position.
The other standout pointer from these stats is Kerrigan's obvious flair for the big play. He's been nothing short of a turnover machine since he entered the pros.
Impact plays are never too far away when No. 91 takes the field. When it comes to award time, so-called "splash" plays are as significant as core numbers like sacks and tackles.
|Kerrigan's Career in Numbers|
|Year||Sacks||Forced Fumbles||Interceptions||Passes Defensed||Tackles (Combined)||Tackles (Solo)|
Speaking of sacks though, Kerrigan has quickly developed into a premier pass-rusher. He broke the double-digit plateau for the first time in 2014.
The 13.5 quarterback takedowns he registered last season represented major progress. Defensive football is about wrecking every phase of an offense, and pressure is the quickest path to destruction.
Not only is Kerrigan getting the sacks marquee edge-rushers get, he's also disrupting passing games in unseen ways. Pro Football Focus detailed one of the footprints this defensive Big Foot often leaves behind on Sundays:
Kerrigan already has the talent and production. If he follows his current career path and takes another step forward, he'll push his sack numbers and big-play stats into the ranks of the J.J. Watts and Justin Houstons of this league.
The chances of Kerrigan taking that step in 2015 are a lot better than you might think. He'll be assisted by two key things in the new season, namely a more attacking scheme and a stronger supporting cast.
The latter is not something the ex-Boilermakers star had much of in 2014. Kerrigan was the lone ranger of a pretty terrible defense last season.
Yet another injury to fellow outside linebacker Brian Orakpo put the pass-rushing burden squarely on Kerrigan's shoulders. It didn't help that big-name import Jason Hatcher, normally a feared interior pass-rusher, suffered a stop-start debut year in D.C.
Fortunately for Kerrigan, things are looking different headed into the new term. A rosier picture begins with a more aggressive, one-gap scheme implemented by new defensive coordinator Joe Barry.
On Barry's watch, the Redskins intend to turn their best players loose more often. That's the word from head coach Jay Gruden, per Rich Tandler of Real Redskins:
We want to let our defensive line go and let them get up the field – [Jason] Hatcher, you know – get the handcuffs off of them a little bit, let them get up the field. Not that they had them [handcuffs] on last year, but the frame of mind is to be a more aggressive-style defense and let them play.
Giving D-linemen greater license to attack single gaps and get into the backfield will be a massive help to Kerrigan. He's more likely to face single blocking if more members of Washington's front seven are getting into the backfield.
There's every chance that will happen considering the improved personnel up front. Free-agent addition Stephen Paea is a capable interior pass-rusher, one very effective rushing from a 3-technique stance to attack the B-gap between a guard and offensive tackle.
That skill earned Paea a career-best six sacks with the Chicago Bears last season. Now he's likely to line up next to Kerrigan on Washington's revamped front.
In previous seasons, the end next to Kerrigan has been tasked with locking up a tackle head-up and even drawing a double-team from the guard. The problem has been the Redskins have lacked players strong enough for this demanding two-gap role.
Kerrigan has frequently been left to rush against a tackle while the guard has been strong enough to neutralize the end. But tackles may have to block down in the new season to thwart Paea and Hatcher as they rush interior gaps.
More importantly, guards may not be able to get near the ends thanks to the presence of mammoth nose tackle Terrance Knighton. Washington's new man over center is a humongous force in the middle.
Attracting double-teams is almost like a super power for Pot Roast, as if he has his own energy field that drags guards toward him to help out overwhelmed centers.
If a tackle blocks down on Paea and a guard is occupied trying to keep Knighton at bay, Kerrigan is going to have an easy matchup off the edge or maybe even no matchup at all.
In this scenario, the best case for an offense is to have a tight end or running back block Kerrigan. Actually, that's the best-case scenario for Washington considering those are the exact mismatches teams that play the 3-4 hope to create.
But it won't be all about the men along the front line. One of Washington's more controversial additions will also boost Kerrigan's chances of dominating the league in 2015.
The arrival of former New Orleans Saints ace Junior Galette raised an eyebrow or two of consternation and certainly went against the "character" narrative new general manager Scot McCloughan had spewed earlier this offseason.
But for all of Galette's baggage, discussed here by B/R's Chris Simms, he's also a pretty prolific pass-rusher:
Not many players boast double-digit sacks in each of the last two seasons, but Galette does after feeling the collars of quarterbacks 22 times during his final years in the Big Easy.
Galette certainly benefited from the presence of blue-chip linemen like Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks. But his own combination of speed and power off the edge causes plenty of headaches for offensive tackles.
Galette is still recovering from a lingering pectoral injury, but he is expected to "start opposite" Kerrigan once he's fully fit, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post.
If Galette is still disruptive off the edge, teams won't be able to slide their protection Kerrigan's way. That's sure to guarantee more one-on-more matchups for a young playmaker who has become expert at exploiting them.
Yet that's not to say Kerrigan can't still improve his technique. Only players destined to fizzle out after a few bright years believe there's nothing they can add to their respective games.
Kerrigan won't be in that position this season. In fact, one addition in particular can ensure No. 91 reaches even greater heights.
The presence of Taekwondo grandmaster Joe Kim has gone largely unnoticed during offseason workouts, but it could end up being one of the most significant moves the team has made since last season.
Kim has been teaching martial arts-style techniques to Washington's host of pass-rushers. His focus has been on hands, "foot and hip placement," according to ESPN.com's John Keim.
There's often been a strong connection between martial arts principles and success rushing the passer in the NFL. New England Patriots great Andre Tippett used martial arts techniques for years during a career that ended with 100 sacks and a spot in Pro Football's Hall of Fame.
Tippet was a trailblazer in this area as someone who "may have been one of the first players to popularize the incorporation of martial arts techniques into his training," per Mark Farinella of the Sun-Chronicle.
Kansas City Chiefs rush linebacker Tamba Hali has also spent a lot of time refining his martial arts expertise to further his ability to make like miserable for quarterbacks. Hali, who has registered 79.5 career sacks, has even worked previously with Kim, per Cleveland.com.
As for Kerrigan, he's already proven how well he can respond to closer, technique-based coaching. Ahead of his breakout year in 2014, Kerrigan worked with outside linebackers coach Brian Baker.
He was full of praise for the way Baker, who is no longer on the team, improved his game, according to CSN Washington's Tarik El-Bashir: “In the offseason, he brought some things to life that were deficiencies in my game. Ever since, I’ve tried to correct those areas—mainly my angle to the quarterback. I’ve corrected that big time and I really think it’s paid dividends.”
With Kim around, expect Kerrigan to add a few more string to his bow. Bad news for quarterbacks but great news for Washington's defense.
The chances of translating what he learns from Kim into an award-winning campaign will be aided by the opposition Kerrigan faces this season. Washington's schedule contains seven games against teams who ranked in the bottom half of the pass protection statistics tallied by Football Outsiders.
In particular, Kerrigan's first two games will put him against the Miami Dolphins, who surrendered 46 sacks last season. Then come the St. Louis Rams, who gave up 47 sacks in 2014. In Week 6, Kerrigan faces the New York Jets, a team that also yielded 47 sacks a year ago.
Kerrigan has a great chance to break Manley's franchise single-season sack record of 18.5, set in 1986.
He also has to be an early contender in the annual race to break Michael Strahan's all-time single-season sack record of 22.5. Those are lofty goals to aim for, but ones certainly in Kerrigan's sights. When Strahan set the league-wide mark back in 2001, he was awarded Defensive POY honors.
With better talent around him, a scheme that lets him to do what he does best more often and work to improve his technique, the player who has gotten better every year can dominate the league in 2015.
Washington's never had a Defensive POY winner. The franchise has also never had a candidate with a better chance of finally scooping the award than Kerrigan.