Typically a team’s fanbase is usually accused of overrating a particular player, but in the case of Brian Orakpo the opposite could be true. Orakpo is a former first round pick, who already has two Pro Bowls to his name. In addition Orakpo has led the team in sacks each of his three seasons.
Despite that resume, it seems like a growing number of Redskins fans rate him as no better than a good pass rusher. In fact many fans seem to already believe that Ryan Kerrigan is a better player than Orakpo. Also, more than once this offseason the idea was floated that to recoup the RGIII picks, Orakpo could be traded given the presence of young pass rushers like Markus White and Rob Jackson.
Now it is true that the Redskins have at least decent depth at the outside linebacker position, so there can be some understanding why some fans thought that the Skins could part with Orakpo. While that depth is key to give Orakpo and Kerrigan some plays off if needed, or to fill in for a short period of time due to injury, they shouldn’t be relied upon for an extended period of time. With the exception of perhaps London Fletcher, there is no player who’s loss would be more damaging to the Skins then that of Orakpo. Not only would there be a drop off in stats from Orakpo to his replacement, but it could effect the stat lines of the rest of the defense.
Orakpo’s presence on the field frees up the rest of the defense to get after the quarterback with quite a bit more freedom. Now the symbiotic of the defense works both ways, as the additions of Ryan Kerrigan and Stephen Bowen (and Barry Cofield to a lesser extent) did help Orakpo have by some accounts his best season, but the linchpin of it all is Orakpo. Putting Rob Jackson out there with Kerrigan and Bowen is not nearly as fear inspiring to opposing offenses. Sure Jackson might even provide 75% of Orakpo’s individual production (not just sacks, but pressures and hits as well), but it would negatively many other players as well. Despite having another talented pass rusher in Ryan Kerrigan, his production would likely fall (from it’s peak not necessarily last year’s numbers) given that he’d likely shift over to face the LT the majority of snaps. Also he would likely see an increase in double teams, as would some of the linemen, something they didn’t face nearly as often this past season. While the overall drop in sacks as a team might be no more than seven or eight, the real loss would be far greater.
Sacks might be the most important stat to measure a pass rusher, but it’s not the only thing to go by. Pressures and hits can be nearly as disruptive, and are very important in evaluating a pass rusher. Every quarterback sees their stats and effectiveness negatively impacted when under pressure, whether it is Aaron Rodgers or Mark Sanchez. So by weakening the pass rush you are essentially inviting opposing quarterbacks to put up better numbers against the team. The Redskins defense last year didn’t force many INT’s, but many that did occur were partially brought on by the level of pressure the quarterback was under.
Now this is not to say that I believe Orakpo to be an elite pass rusher, but I do feel that he is on the cusp of being elite. Orakpo’s sack numbers maybe aren’t as flashy as some pass rushers, but he gets after the quarterback quite a bit, and he’s right below the top level guys. One of the bigger knocks on Orakpo is that while he’s among the league leaders in holding calls drawn on him, he doesn’t have the “finishing move” to get to the quarterback. Although it is still an area he needs to work on, Orakpo shouldn’t be negatively graded for drawing holding penalties. While holding penalties don’t come with the loss of down, its a 10-yard loss, which is more than most sacks (sacks are still obviously the ideal). It’s not exactly a bad thing to draw these penalties and they should be taken into some consideration. Orakpo also steadily improved both in run defense and pass coverage last season, making him more of a complete player.
Hopefully entering his fourth season Orakpo will break into that elite echelon of pass rushers, but until then I hope that Redskins fans give him his just due. If the Redskins do return to being a perennial playoff contender soon, it is pretty safe to say Orakpo will be a key part of that.