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Contract-Year Player to Watch: Brian Orakpo

Brian Orakpo has 29.5 sacks in 49 career games. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Brian Orakpo has 29.5 sacks in 49 career games. (Alex Brandon/AP)

As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three players who could hit free agency in 2014.

Just as Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo was about to cement himself as a defensive star in the NFL, just as he had become a big enough name to star in commercials featuring cavemen and rather egregious disregard for the rules of Scrabble, his ascension was halted.

Orakpo tore a pectoral muscle in Week 2 last season, then missed the Redskins' final 14 games and their playoff showdown with Seattle. And now, he enters into 2013 with something to prove.

The 26-year-old Orakpo was everything Washington hoped he would be from 2009-11, after using the No. 13 overall pick on the Texas star. Orakpo recorded 11.0 sacks in his rookie season, then a combined 17.5 over the next two years. He chalked up Pro Bowl honors in both '09 and '10 and probably should have landed a nod in 2011, as well.

Had he made it through his fourth season unscathed, while continuing to play high-impact football, the Redskins might have been inclined to offer him an extension -- and Orakpo would not have been out of line to open those conversations, rather than play a fifth season for less than $3 million in base salary.

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Instead, the Redskins appear to be in no rush to rework Orakpo's contract. Nor do they need to be. Washington is currently projected to be somewhere around $30 million under the salary cap for next year, so even if this situation ends with the franchise tag being used on Orakpo (that price was $9.619 million for linebackers in 2013), there ought to be enough wiggle room for the remainder of the roster.

It's also safe to assume that the Redskins want to see Orakpo prove he is healthy before handing him a massive contract. The pectoral injury that sidelined him last season first popped up late in 2011, meaning that Orakpo has not been 100 percent for an extended period of time.

But if all goes according to plan for Orakpo and the Redskins this season, Washington will not mind ponying up some dough. There is a little bit of an out-of-sight, out-of-mind element at work regarding Orakpo heading into 2013, so it is worth pointing out that he was an absolutely vital part of Washington's defense for three seasons. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded him out as the team's best defender in 2011, the one year of those three that he did not make the Pro Bowl.

For his part, Orakpo is certain he can get back to that level again. He recently told USA Today, "Defensive Player of the Year is a goal of mine. I worked extremely hard this offseason and Defensive Player of the Year is very obtainable." That's a high bar to set for a guy coming off an injury, even more so when considering that J.J. Watt ran away with that award in 2012 by posting 20.5 sacks, 16 passes defensed and four forced fumbles.

Clearly, Orakpo does not feel that he topped out with that 11-sack showing in his rookie season.

Ryan Kerrigan's presence at the Redskins' other OLB spot should only continue to help Orakpo excel. Kerrigan led the team with 8.5 sacks last season (up from 7.5 in 2012) and, entering his third season, could be ready for a major breakout performance of his own. So as long as Washington's defensive front and the inside linebacking tandem of London Fletcher and Perry Riley hold their own, both Orakpo and Kerrigan will find ample opportunities to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.

The Redskins may play it a little safe with Orakpo once camp begins, though he showed no real ill effects of his time off during OTAs. Orakpo's injury occurred on Sept. 16 of last season -- meaning that by Week 1 this season, he'll have had nearly a full calendar year to recover.