Chris Wesseling of NFL.com recently said in his article of teams likely to challenge the Patriots in 2015, “Mike Tomlin’s team is an impact pass rusher and a revamped secondary away from dethroning the Pats.” Ask any Steelers fan and this will ring deafeningly true.
NFL.com also released an article — also authored by Chris Wesseling — of the top 25 free agents to be available this off season. The list has such names as Ndamukong Suh, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Justin Houston and Jerry Hughes. Even the Steelers’ own Jason Worilds cracks the top 15. Usually, Steelers fans can ignore articles such as this because as an organization they typically make under-the-radar, less frequently talked about moves that always seem to have a big impact on the team. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in recent years. The Steelers haven’t signed a Ryan Clark or James Farrior-type to be a mainstay on defense as of late.
Enter: Brian Orakpo.
On the list, Orakpo (age 29 in the 2015 season) ranks 24th and is ranked as the seventh pass rusher. Due to the influx of edge rushers available and their respective ability to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme effectively, Orakpo’s name has been pushed down the list of potential free agents. This is mostly due to the injuries that he has suffered in recent years. In two of his last three seasons, Orakpo has suffered season-ending pectoral tears. This season, Orakpo suffered his third pectoral injury of his career in a Week Seven 19-17 win against the Tennessee Titans. Due to the number of injuries Orakpo has had in his upper body, it has scared some teams off and has pushed players such as Worilds and Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham up free agent boards.
One might question why, with his injury history affecting his recent production on the field, the Steelers would have any interest in a player that would remind many of LaMarr Woodley and his consistent injuries keeping him off the field. To that I say, it’s simple: when on the field, Brian Orakpo is one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the game.
To really get a feeling of Orakpo’s game, one must look beyond scouting the statline. Orakpo’s ability as an edge rusher is well documented. In the seasons in which Orakpo remained healthy and did not suffer a pectoral injury, he registered 38.5 sacks in 62 games, registering double digit sacks in two of them. He’s a fluid rusher for his size, possessing natural ability and strength off the line. His ability is rare to find in a player that can push a tackle backward plus counter inside or outside with his surprising burst and quickness. Fluidity and strength are what Orakpo brings off the edge in pass rushing.
Perhaps where Orakpo excels most, however, is his ability to seal the edge and shed blocks in the run game. His ability to penetrate and make tackles in the backfield is something the Steelers have sorely missed from their outside linebackers in recent years. The ability to seal the edge and force runners back inside is something the Steelers showed frequently with Woodley and Harrison at linebacker. Orakpo brings this element back to the run game. His weakness — like most other outside linebackers — is his ability in coverage. That said, by no means is he a liability in coverage. Under Keith Butler, the Steelers are expecting to send their outside linebackers after quarterbacks more and have them drop into coverage less. Under Dick LeBeau, the signing of Orakpo wouldn’t have made much sense. His forte is an edge rusher with significant upside as a run defender, but teams would find the weakness in his pass coverage game and exploit it. This will not be the case under Butler.
The next question in signing someone like Orakpo would be the price tag. As mentioned earlier, the Steelers don’t typically bring in big name free agents. However, this has not always been the case. In recent years, the front office inquired about Jake Long and Elvis Dumervil before they signed their respective deals. This was when there were major holes and question marks about the talent and depth at left tackle and outside linebacker. One of these positions is now solidified while the other still remains somewhat of a question mark. The willingness to make a splash is there, but it has to make sense for the team in both talent and depth the money on the cap. This might be the best thing about the signing of Orakpo.
Looking at the potential money some of the top edge rushers in free agency might make, I believe this pushes Orakpo’s number down. Judging by what were the cap hits of the top 3-4 outside linebackers last season, Clay Matthews’s $12.7 million comes out on top with Tamba Hali and Brian Orakpo both making over $11.4 million. This free agent draft class features such edge rushers as Justin Houston and Jerry Hughes. While Houston is likely going to get in that $12 – 14 million dollar range, Hughes is likely to be just over $10 million annually. Players such as Jason Worilds and Brandon Graham are going to be in excess of $7.5 – 8 million. Coming in after that, it’s anyone’s guess. Since Orakpo has suffered a pectoral injury now in three of his last four seasons, his price is going to be driven into the ground despite his production and ability on the field. He will likely be looking for something of a bridge contract, not committing to anything more than 3 years, but will have to sacrifice money to do so. An incentive laden deal with low guarantees is probably what he will be offered. All of this being taken into account, the Steelers would likely offer Orakpo a 3 year deal between $17.5 and $19 million. Knowing that the market value of edge rushers is ever soaring as the game continues to develop and change, getting someone like Orakpo for under market value and on the cheap for a few seasons while we find out exactly what we have with Jarvis Jones is something that must excite this team.
The acquisition of Orakpo makes sense not only financially, but in terms of the talent and depth the Steelers have on the roster as well. Obtaining a talent such as Orakpo at a potential below-market price, for a position the Steelers desperately need to find an answer for, is not something that comes around often. Signing Orakpo would indeed kick Jones over to the left side and allow him to develop his game against bigger, more plodding right tackles. The right side of the line is already anchored by Cameron Heyward and bringing on someone like Orakpo would make the combination a handful for any offensive line. This would also allow the Steelers to look at either cornerback or safety (or both) early in the draft.
This team is not far from being one of the strongest on both sides of the ball. Young talent at key positions played a key role in why the Steelers struggled last season. Bringing on Orakpo, someone the younger players could learn from and continue their development under, would only help solve this teams issues on defense. Getting a rock solid edge rusher and run defender is what this team sorely needs at this moment.
Help the Steelers, Brian Orakpo, you’re their only hope.
All statistics and salary figures were obtained from ESPN.com and Spotrac.com.