Should the Redskins Re-Sign Brian Orakpo & Perry Riley?

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Updated: December 6, 2013
Redskins linebackers

Washington Redskins ILB London Fletcher, defensive team captain and all around leader, thinks the Skins need to re-sign ILB Perry Riley and OLB Brian Orakpo, both of whom are free agents.

“It’s not ideal to have more than half your defense not under contract,” Fletcher said Thursday at Redskins Park. “That’s something that you don’t see most teams do. But it’s kind of it is what it is, for whatever reason, whether it’s [from a salary] cap standpoint or whatever, not being able to get more guys locked up. I think there’s some good young football players the organization needs to continue to lock up when you look at Perry, you look at ‘Rak. Those two guys just come to mind because they’re young guys just coming off their first rookie deals. So those are cornerstones that you need to keep around.”

Is Fletcher correct? Do the Redskins need to retain Orakpo and Riley? Are those two players “cornerstones” of the defense? Let’s consider each player individually. Orakpo first.

Orakpo has said he believes he is an “elite” NFL pass-rusher. Going into contract negotiations only weeks away, what else would he say? But is he elite? Well, he’s playing very well right now, but he has only 8.5 sacks this season. That’s first on the Redskins, but there are currently 15 NFL players with more sacks this season than Brian Orakpo. What’s more, Orakpo only has one double-digit sack season in his pro career and that happened in his 2009 rookie season, when he had 11 sacks. Since then it has been 8.5 sacks, 9 sacks, 1 sack [in the injury-shortened 2012 season] and now the 8.5 through 12 games of 2013. It looks like Orakpo is a good pass-rusher, but in no way do the sack totals indicate he is elite. Texans DT JJ Watt, who had 20.5 sacks last year and 9.5 so far this year, is elite. Cowboys DE DeMarcus Ware has only 5 sacks this season as he’s struggled with injury, but prior to 2013 he had seven straight seasons with double digit sack totals, including 20 in 2008 and 19.5 in 2011. That is elite.

Perhaps the best comparison would be Packers OLB Clay Matthews, who has also suffered injuries this season, but still managed six sacks in eight games. Both Orakpo and Matthews came into the league in 2009 and quickly developed reputations and pass-rushers, with Orakpo notching 11 sacks as a rookie and Matthews 10. Since then, though, Matthews has undeniably surpassed Orakpo as a pass-rusher. Matthews had 13.5 sacks in 2010 and 13  in 2012. In 66 NFL games, Matthews has 48.5 sacks, meaning he’s averaging 0.73 sacks per game as a pro. Orakpo has only 38 sacks in 61 games, or 0.62 per game. Both have been solid pass-rushers, but Matthews has been better.

Of course, sacks are not the only standard by which we should measure a pass-rusher or a player, but they are going to be a key part of any negotiation between Orakpo and the Redskins or any other NFL team. Franchises will pay for sacks and players will make them pay for sacks. Pressuring a passer can be almost as important as sacking him and Orakpo has 25 QB pressures this season. That’s good, but, once again, it’s not exactly elite. It’s not even tops on his own team — OLB Ryan Kerrigan leads the Skins with 35 QB pressures.

What else? Well, if Orakpo has not banished his reputation as a poor run defender, that’s not his fault. Orakpo has been good against the run in 2013, a major reversal from previous seasons. In fact, Orakpo has even played pretty well in coverage this year. In fact, going over my game records for Orakpo this season, I don’t have him down for a single game where he was bad against either the run or in coverage. Is this very noticeable improvement coming in a contract season? Yes, but it has happened and cannot be denied by anyone paying attention to what’s going on on the field. Rushing the QB is still the best thing Orakpo does, but it is no longer the only thing he does well. He’s become a very good, well-rounded defender in his fifth NFL season.

So, let’s go back and look at the contract extension Clay Matthews signed with the Packers last offseason. Matthews got $65 million over five years. My guess is that Orakpo will push for that and the Redskins will balk, pointing out Orakpo’s inferior sack totals. What happens then? Well, the Redskins could slap the franchise tag on Orakpo, which would guaranteed he would spend at least one more year in burgundy and gold, but would also eat up over $10.6 million of cap space — space the team desperately needs to spread around the entire team.

My view is that Brian Orakpo is a very good defender and a good pass-rusher, but he is not elite — at least, not yet — and should not be paid like an elite pass-rusher. He doesn’t deserve the sort of money paid to DeMarcus Ware or the sort of money JJ Watt will get once he is a free agent. The Redskins should make almost every effort to keep Orakpo for years to come, but they should not pay him like the elite player he has not been. If the Redskins and Orakpo can agree on a reasonable contract, something south of what Clay Matthews got earlier this year, that would be fair for all concerned. Losing Orakpo would be a tough blow to the defense, but screwing up the salary cap to overpay one guy — something the Redskins have been known to do in years past — is bad for the whole team and for the future of the team.

Now, Perry Riley. This is an easier matter to consider. Riley isn’t considered elite by anyone — probably not even Riley himself — and will not get paid like an elite inside linebacker. In fact, while Riley has played better the last two weeks, he has not been a good linebacker in 2013. He has major problems in pass coverage and his run defense has been up and down, but more down than up. The only area where Riley has done well this year is as a pass-rusher and you don’t pay big money for inside linebackers who can rush the passer, particularly since it isn’t something they do often. [Riley has 2 sacks, 5 QB hits and 9 QB hurries this season.]

Frankly, I’d be fine if the Redskins just moved on from Riley. While there is value in having player continuity on your roster, you want those players to perform at a high level. Otherwise, you’re paying bad or mediocre players to stick around and congratulating yourself for the continuity of bad or mediocre results. Riley surely has more value to the Mike Shanahan coaching staff than he would if a new coach and a new defensive coordinator is brought in following this disastrously disappointing season. Shanahan drafted Riley in the fourth round in 2010 and wants that pick to pay off. Riley became a starter midway through the 2010 season and has held that position since. I thought he played decently in 2012, but has taken a clear and obvious step back in 2013. To me, Riley is a player who is easily replaceable, probably for a reasonable amount of money. Washington needs to upgrade their inside linebacker production in 2014 and replacing both Riley and the likely-retiring London Fletcher wouldn’t be a bad way to go. I would be willing to keep Riley around, but only at a very reasonable salary. If I was a new coach taking over the team and instituting a new offense where Riley’s familiarity would be of no benefit, I would replace both Fletcher and Riley.