We will be featuring a different Washington Redskins player each day on this list, staying away from rookies or some second-year players still finding their way. This will focus primarily on veterans at or near a career crossroads. Today: linebacker Brian Orakpo.
Why he has something to prove: He's on a one-year contract and will need a big season to get the sort of deal he wants. Orakpo said at his golf tournament this spring that he felt he didn't have anything to prove. And, yes, what he's done over the course of his career has been solid. But he also hasn't had a monster season when it comes to sacks and that would help him get paid. A lot. Coach Jay Gruden has said he's content on Orakpo riding out the season on a one-year deal and why wouldn't he be? It provides more motivation for his best pass-rusher. It could be a win-win. Not everyone in the building thought Orakpo would even receive the franchise tag offer from the Redskins, so there are others waiting for that season as well. Orakpo contends he is an elite linebacker and it's true that he has more responsibilities than others at his position, especially in terms of dropping into coverage (as does Ryan Kerrigan of course; other linebackers in this style of 3-4 also have this job). But the big-money guys post the big totals. Orakpo's all-around game has developed, but if he makes more game-changing plays and gets a few more sacks, he'll cash in.
What he must do: Take advantage of his surroundings, as in coaching and talent. The Redskins added an interior pass-rusher in Jason Hatcher and drafted Trent Murphy to add another dimension as a third outside linebacker in their fast nickel package. That means Orakpo (and Kerrigan) have more around to help. In the past, teams mostly worried about those two as the defensive line posted paltry sack totals (8.5 sacks the past two years combined). Both Orakpo and Kerrigan should benefit if the inside can pinch the passer more; in 2011 the pass rush was much better in part because of how well Orakpo worked with end Stephen Bowen. Also, the Redskins' outside linebackers are being taught more techniques this offseason. It's not just about adding moves, it's about using their hands better and taking stronger angles off the ball. Under the previous linebackers coaches, it was more about responsibilities. Now it's about technique. Orakpo is considered a momentum rusher, going as much by feel. There are counters he can add (spin move) that would make this tactic more effective. There's also a heavy focus on sack/fumbles -- Orakpo has caused just six fumbles in his career. He needs several such plays this season -- and then some.
Projection: Obviously he'll start outside. Orakpo has developed as a linebacker and is a solid all-around player; the Redskins wisely retained him this offseason (though I was not in favor of a deal worth $11 million per year. Not yet.) He works hard and plays with passion. And when he's on his game, he not only pressures the passer he sets up teammates to do the same. Just because the Redskins drafted Murphy does not mean they view him as Orakpo's replacement after this year (Orakpo does not see it that way, either). If Orakpo has a really good year, and the pass rush overall is strong, why wouldn't you re-sign him? The Redskins have helped him out by some of their moves this offseason; Orakpo will need to produce.