ASHBURN, Va. - Whether he's relaxing in the lobby at the team's training facility or simply getting ready for practice, it'd be hard to guess that Washington Redskins third-year linebacker Brian Orakpo is considered a high-profile player. He is mild-mannered and focused, which for once fits right in with a business-first approach that's now pervasive on this revamped roster.
Yet after just two seasons, the former University of Texas standout has already emerged as one of the team's most recognizable faces. On a defense that has seen its members change dramatically this offseason, Orakpo's spot on this unit remains as cemented as it can possibly be. That, of course, is a byproduct of being the first Redskins player to go to the Pro Bowl in his first two year while being just one of five players drafted by this franchise since 2000 to be elected to the game.
The best news of all for Redskins fans, though, is the fact that the best is yet to come.
No longer a new scheme
The 13th overall selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, Orakpo quickly established himself as one of the league's best young pass rushers. His 19.5 sacks through his first two seasons rank second among players drafted that year, trailing only Green Bay's Clay Mathews.
Much like Mathews, Orakpo has had to adjust to playing outside linebacker in a new 3-4 defensive front. Though Orakpo was still able to showcase his pass rushing ability at his new position (called "The Buck" in this scheme), there was still much learning for him to do.
His 8.5 sacks, six QB hits and 34 pressures in 2010 suggest that he adjusted to the new scheme well, but with any new defense, there's no substitute for experience. Having all the physical tools to play the position is one thing, but being able to master that position is an entirely different story.
It's not like Orakpo played poorly, but he believes the lessons he learned last year will bear fruit this season.
"I'm a lot more comfortable this year," he tells me when I ask him about the scheme. "Everything's coming a lot faster, easier for me. That's one thing that the second year always does with players -- [being] able to get more comfortable in [the scheme]."
"He's a lot more comfortable [this year] than last year, obviously." defensive coordinator Jim Haslett says of his top pass rusher. "[Last year] he kind of went through what [rookie Ryan Kerrigan]'s going though now. He's not thinking as much, he's just reacting. Obviously he's got great pass rush skills and he's powerful. He knows what he's doing on the run, so I think it's night and day from last year."
Becoming a complete player
As last season went on, it became obvious that the Redskins' defense did not have enough complementary players to alleviate some of the pressure off Orakpo that came with being the unit's best pass rusher. Offenses were able to focus their protection scheme around him, making it all the more difficult for him to wreak havoc on opposing passers.
That being said, Orakpo still is looking inward for improvement, both as a rusher and a run defender. Being able to using your hands effectively as a defender is one of the most vital elements in getting off blocks and attacking the ball carrier. Orakpo's hand usage has been one of his biggest issues in his brief career.
"He would use his shoulders [instead] once in a while last year," Haslett recalls.
This offseason, using his hands as weapons to engage opposing blockers has become a focus for Orakpo. Most of his offseason training activity was spent in Austin, Texas, where he worked on hand to hand combat techniques in his training facility at his alma mater.
"[I did] some boxing and MMA type stuff," he explains. "[I learned] better technique as far as getting to the passer, and [this season] I can transfer it on the field."
After just two preseason games, it's already become apparent that Orakpo could be far more active getting off of blocks than he was in his first two seasons.
"[Now] he's using his hands really well." Haslett says. "It's something he's got to keep working on. He's doing a good job with his hand placement taking on [blockers]."
Having good hand placement isn't something that is reserved for just run defense, of course. It's essential for becoming an elite pass rusher, a status Orakpo would like to earn.
One of the linebacker's biggest strengths is his ability to turn the corner against opposing offensive tackles while also maintaining his speed. Maintaining that burst around the edge especially helps him on two of his more effective moves, the speed rush and the rip move, where the outside rusher uses his inside arm to "rip" outside arm of the blocker while turning the corner.
However, several observers believe that while Orakpo's poor teammates make life hard on him, he also needs to diversify his pass rush repertoire. It's been one of the very few criticisms that have persisted ever since the time he came out of Texas.
He counters that critique by saying it's effectiveness, not versatility, that makes good pass rushers.
"That [criticism] is nonsense," he says calmly. "I just go out there and play my game. If that's one move and they can't stop it, then so be it. I'm not really not a guy that going to have a whole huge arsenal of moves. I just kind of keep it real simple and just try to play my game."
His career numbers so far certainly prove his point. Still, this season will be about taking the next step for Orakpo. With his comfort with the scheme, improved technique and help in the form of nose tackle Barry Cofield, defensive end Stephen Bowen and Kerrigan, it's a good bet that Orakpo will take that step in 2011.
Becoming a cornerstone player
At the team's training camp earlier this month, fans lined up to catch a glimpse of their favorite team, being head to toe in burgundy and gold gear. Some chose to wear the throwback jerseys, ones that read "Monk," "Green," "Theismann" and "Riggins." Others went with some of the contemporaries in Cooley and Moss. But there were also a growing number of Orakpo jerseys, which has come to signify his place on this team both inside the building and within the fanbase.
He's quickly becoming one of the faces of the franchise, a status that is not lost on Orakpo.
"It means a lot," he says of his status with the team. "It means that fans believe in me, that this team and organization believes in me. I'm excited to be apart of this organization. Once we get to the winning ways, it's going to be a lot better for everybody"
Orakpo has certainly seen a lot in his brief Redskins career. First, he witnessed a coaching change after his rookie season. Last year, he had to watch as a power struggle between his next head coach in Mike Shanahan and former Redskins defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth threatened to tear apart the team. Orakpo now goes into his third year being considered a veteran on the roster.
With the locker room cleansed of any and all distractions, Orakpo and his teammates are free to focus on what matters most: winning football games. With the football world expecting the team to struggle in 2011, Orakpo echoes his teammate Rex Grossman in his belief that the team could surprise some folks this season.
"Ain't nothing wrong with being confident." he says about preseason expectations. "You always got to be confident in your abilities. We always have a goal before the season, and that's to reach the Super Bowl and win your division."
"We don't have to be second to nobody. So whatever [Grossman] said, we all believe so. That's how you start a season off and [those are] your ultimate goals."
Given the work he has done this summer, the same could be said for his individual game.