Posted: Wed July 31, 2013 11:53AM; Updated: Wed July 31, 2013 12:10PM
Don Banks

Brian Orakpo's recovery overshadowed but no less crucial for Redskins

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Brian Orakpo missed 14 games with a torn pectoral last season.
Brian Orakpo has tallied 29.5 sacks over four seasons in the NFL.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI

RICHMOND, Va. -- Brian Orakpo is playfully aware that his is not really the comeback of note in Washington this season. With all eyes fixated on every increment of the starting quarterback's recovery from major knee surgery, Orakpo's own rehabilitation from the torn pectoral muscle that cost him all but two games of 2012 is considerably less than bottom-of-the-screen-crawl material.

Ah, such is life with Robert Griffin III in the football-rabid nation's capital, where no other Redskin player can even dream of sharing center stage.

"RGIII, he's Black Jesus right now, man," Orakpo said, enjoying his own joke after the close of Saturday afternoon's training camp practice at Washington's new Bon Secours training center in Richmond. "He's the man right now, and I kind of like how our defense and everything else is under the radar. Let everything play itself out once the season starts.''

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Everybody in Washington understands that as Griffin and his surgically repaired right knee go, so go the Redskins again this season. But Orakpo's return to impact rush-linebacker form is no insignificant subplot. Pleasantly surprising division title and playoff trip aside, the 2012 Redskins were not a success story in terms of their pass rush, tying for 23rd in the league with just 32 sacks. That put the pass defense at a great disadvantage, especially in the season's first half, when seven of eight opposing quarterbacks threw for 300-plus yards. Washington wound up 30th against the pass (282 ypg), and faced a league-high 636 pass attempts.

A healthy Orakpo should greatly boost the Redskins' so-so pass rush. The team's 2009 first-round pick, a 4-3 defensive end in college, Orakpo totaled 28.5 sacks in his first three full NFL seasons, and Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett believes the guy everyone calls "Rak'' has the potential to rack up a 17- or 18-sack season.

"If he puts his mind to it, he could get that easily,'' Haslett said. "He had 11 sacks as a rookie in 2009, and he probably missed six or seven others that were there for the taking. He's looked great so far. All I know is we had 41 sacks in 2011, and 32 sacks last year, and there's a reason for that.''

Orakpo's teammates and coaches have lauded the energy his return has provided the Washington defense, with Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan calling him a man "possessed'' in offseason workouts. For his part, Orakpo has made no secret of his desire to be in the running for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year (along with Griffin, he said), as well as the league's next Defensive Player of the Year recipient.

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"If you don't strive to be the best, you might as well hang it up, don't even play,'' said Orakpo, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. "You should always shoot high. There's no reason why I shouldn't be out there this year shooting for Defensive Player of the Year.''

The important thing is that Orakpo's out there. He hurt the same left pectoral at the end of the 2011 season, although in a slightly different area. Last year, once Orakpo went down, the Redskins found out they had quite the playmaker in reserve outside linebacker Rob Jackson, who came off the bench to start 14 games, turning in 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception returned for a touchdown. But in March the NFL suspended Jackson for the first four games of this season after he tested positive for a banned substance, underlining all the more how much the Redskins need Orakapo back in the lineup and producing.

"He's what you call a difference-maker,'' veteran Washington inside linebacker London Fletcher said of Orakpo. "He can make some of the other players better, where you're able to pressure the quarterback, get sacks on the quarterback. And also from a gameplan standpoint, the offensive coordinators have to account for him, so he's going to help other guys play better football.''

The injured Orakpo missed out on the Redskins' season-ending seven-game winning streak and first NFC East title since 1999, and it was like doing plenty to help plan the party, but then missing out on all the fun.

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"I always say it was tough, it was also a joy to watch,'' Orakpo said. "I wanted to be part of that run, but at the same time it was enjoyable to watch our team, to watch the Redskins finally doing well after so many down years. I was a fan watching them myself.

"But we want to be there year in and year out. We don't want to be one of those one-hit wonders and go back to being the bottom of the barrel. We want to always be at the top, and that's what we're out here striving for again.''

Despite missing the Redskins' memorable run to the playoffs, Orakpo tried to use the time wisely, dedicating himself to viewing the game differently from the sideline. That increased perspective has shown up in camp, with Orakpo showing more decisiveness and an increased instinct for dropping into pass coverage, which remains one of the areas of his game that needs improvement. Orakpo has yet to intercept a pass in his four-year NFL career, while Jackson, his replacement, picked off four in 14 games last season.

"It broadened my football IQ, that's all it did,'' Orakpo said. "Seeing from the sideline, from what coaches see instead of being out there on the field, you can kind of see why different calls are made and see where the holes are. I think it'll mean I can be more aggressive with my pass rushing. It kind of gave me a few little tricks I can incorporate in my game.

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"When you take a year off, you miss the game and you obviously don't want that to ever occur. But at the same time, you need to turn that time into a positive, getting your body prepared physically and mentally as well. I just picked up on things you can learn from watching the game from the sideline.''

The Redskins may well try to get Orakpo, Jackson and left outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan (the team's 2012 sack leader with 8.5) on the field at the same time in certain packages this season, once Jackson returns from suspension. That should be Washington's most formidable pass-rush grouping, one that will help the Redskins' defense carry its fair share of the weight from the start this season.

"It'll be huge for us to have Rak back out there,'' said Kerrigan, the Redskins' first-round pick in 2011. "Throughout OTAs he was an animal out there. He looked like Rak, and that was an awesome sign. It's not just his play, but the attitude he brings to the defense, the physical, tough attitude with some swagger that he brings. He's nasty. He's a nasty player, and you feel it when he hits you.''

The Redskins in camp have felt Orakpo's determination to make up for lost time. Most of the attention in camp remains on Griffin's all-important braced knee, but the recovery story unfolding on defense has plenty of potential impact on the 2013 season as well.

"You can tell he's excited to get back, and he's ready to play,'' Shanahan said. "He really did look possessed when he came back, the way he practices, his attention to detail. I think when you see him play you'll be impressed by his game. You can see how much he missed that year off. He'll be out to show everybody that he's a complete player and not just a one-dimensional talent. He's much better now than he was before the injury, and he'll show that.''

In Washington, the season of comebacks has begun.

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