Over the next two weeks, CSNWashington.com Redskins reporters Tarik El-Bashir and Rich Tandler will grade each position group’s performance in 2012 and evaluate the group’s outlook for 2013.
Position: Outside linebackers
Key reserves: Chris Wilson and Vic So’oto
Key free agents: Jackson, Wilson
Rewind: Like other position groups on defense, the outside linebackers were struck by a major injury early.
Standout pass rusher Brian Orakpo re-injured his surgically repaired pectoral muscle in Week 2 against the Rams and was lost for the season, dealing the defense a big blow. In his previous three-plus seasons, Orakpo had recorded 29.5 sacks.
Orakpo’s absence had a negative effect on Ryan Kerrigan but it also opened the door for reserve Rob Jackson, who, after an adjustment period, proved to be a more-than-adequate replacement. Jackson, 27, intercepted four passes, returning one for a touchdown, and finished with 4.5 sacks.
Jackson was also clutch down the stretch. His fourth quarter sack of the Giants’ Eli Manning on Dec. 3 helped Washington hold on at home. Two weeks later, his third quarter interception against the Browns sparked the Redskins’ rally. Then, in the winner-takes-all game regular season finale against the Cowboys, the fifth-year pro helped clinch the victory by picking off Tony Romo in the final minutes.
On the opposite side, Kerrigan struggled a bit early as Orakpo’s injury allowed offenses to focus more on blocking him. But Kerrigan adapted, finished strong and was tapped as a late replacement to his first Pro Bowl.
Kerrigan finished his second season with a team-leading 8.5 sacks, 83 tackles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. The 24-year-old also recorded a team-high 51 quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Fast forward: A major question as the offseason begins is the health of Orakpo. While he possesses the talent to become a bona fide star, he’s got to stay on the field. And after having the same muscle repaired twice in a span of nine months, there will be some lingering concern about the 2009 first round pick until he shows he’s 100-percent.
If there are no setbacks, though, Orakpo figures to be the starter opposite Kerrigan in 2013.
Jackson, meantime, maximized his opportunity. As an unrestricted free agent, he made enough plays to possibly warrant bids from other teams while also remaining an priority for the Redskins. Washington, however, will again face tough decisions of it copes with an $18 million salary cap penalty for a second straight season.
Kerrigan has readily acknowledged that he was not particularly pleased with his play. But given the way he finished the 2012 season, there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue that upward trajectory as he gains more experience.
After the health of Orakpo, the other question the Redskins must address at outside linebacker is depth. Chris Wilson, another unrestricted free agent, originally competed with Jackson for playing time but played only 13 snaps on defense from Weeks 6-17.
Vic So’oto was signed off the Packers’ practice squad in December and finished the season listed as Kerrigan’s backup. But it’s unclear how he fits into the team’s future plans.
If the Redskins do not address linebacker depth in the draft, it’s possible they’ll do so in free agency.