The 2014 Redskins are loaded with storylines. Between now and the start of the first veteran minicamp on April 29, Rich Tandler and Tarik El-Bashir will examine 20 questions Washington faces as Jay Gruden pieces together the roster, finalizes his playbook and preps for his first season as a head coach in the NFL.
Will Brian Orakpo take the next step?
The Redskins franchised Brian Orakpo last month, essentially tying the star pass rusher to the team for the 2014 season. The cost? A team-high $11.5 million. The decision was no slam-dunk, either; officials debated whether to invest heavily in one player or use the money to address a whole host of needs. But now that the decision has been made and Rak’s going to be a Redskin for (at least) another season, the focus must shift to maximizing the 27-year-old’s immense—yet not totally realized—potential. If Orakpo breaks out, he’ll get the lucrative long term he so badly wants. If he doesn’t, the team and the player will find themselves in a similar bind a year from now.
El-Bashir: I predict a big season for Orakpo. How big? I’m going to go with 14-16 sacks. There so many reasons it should happen: 1) the Redskins hired veteran position coach Brian Baker to hone the outside linebackers’ pass rush skills; 2) scheme tweaks that are expected to allow Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to get after the quarterback more often; 3) Orakpo late last season said he’s no longer playing with the constant fear of suffering a third pectoral injury; and 4) the addition of Jason Hatcher to the defensive line. “You’re going to have to pick and choose,” Orakpo told me recently, referring to the fact that defenses now must account for Hatcher in addition to himself and Kerrigan. And, oh yeah, as I mentioned up top, Orakpo is going to be plenty motivated by the opportunity to secure a huge contract.
Tandler: I’m going to focus on Tarik’s second point. New coaching techniques and better health may help him marginally but after four full NFL seasons Orakpo isn’t likely to take a sudden leap forward in terms of his ability. If everything else stays the same we should expect him to get eight to 10 sacks and around 40 tackles. But everything else will not stay the same if Jim Haslett does indeed take the handcuffs off of the pass rushers and let them play more aggressively. Per Pro Football Focus, Orakpo rushed the passer 363 times last year and got 11 sacks. Mario Williams of the Bills rushed the passer 547 times. If Orakpo went after the QB that frequently and had the same sack rate he would have had 16.5 sacks last year and everyone would be hailing him as an elite pass rusher. Bottom line, Orakpo’s pass rushing ability is unlikely to improve much but his opportunities could increase dramatically.