(photo by Brian Murphy)
When Mike Shanahan took over as the head coach of the Washington Redskins, he inherited a roster with more names than actual talent.
Too many starters were on the downside of their respective careers and a complete lack of depth across the board doomed the two-time Super Bowl winning coach out the gate.
One of the lone bright spots in Shanahan’s first season in Washington was outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in each of his two NFL seasons while racking up an impressive 19.5 sacks.
The only other pass rushers of note in Washington was Andre Carter, a well-respected veteran who is a much better defensive end than outside linebacker.
Carter had 34 sacks in five seasons with the Redskins, although all but 2.5 of those sacks came in a 4-3 defensive scheme before Shanahan took the job.
Once the decision was made to convert to a 3-4 scheme, it was only a matter of time before the Redskins and Carter parted ways.
The 11-year pro was let go this offseason and the Redskins spent their first-round pick in the 2011 draft on Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan, a unanimous All-American who collected 33.5 sacks during his college career.
Like Carter though, Kerrigan is someone much more comfortable rushing forward rather than dropping back in coverage.
When it came to sacking the quarterback, few in college football did it as well as he did. But Kerrigan’s coverage skills at this point would best be described as a “work in progress.”
Anyone familiar with this site should know by now that Carter is someone I consider a personal friend. When Shanahan was first hired, I asked Carter about the biggest challenge going from defensive end to outside linebacker
“For me, the most difficult part of that experience was coverage,” Carter told me. “Back then I had to cover the tight end man-to-man, and that was an experience. I learned how to do it as the season went on, but man, talk about getting your butt whooped. And there were times when I had to line up on the number-two receivers when they were lined up in the slot. That was different.
“We played a cover-2, so I had to jam him at the line of scrimmage,” Carter continued. “You learn little stuff like how to work your hips a certain way, because if I don’t flip them, he’s going to beat me deep. Yeah, there were times I learned that the hard way.”
Carter has always been a team-oriented player, so he tried to make the best of an uncomfortable situation. But no matter what role he tried to play, he knew he was meant to be a pass rushing defensive end.
More than once he told me that maybe if he was asked to transition to outside linebacker when he first came into the league, things would have gone differently. But by the time Shanahan and friends came into his life, that ship had sailed.
Which brings me back to Kerrigan. The 23-year-old will surely take his lumps as he learns the ropes on a new position with new responsibilities, but he’s in a much better position to excel than Carter.
Against the Baltimore Ravens, Kerrigan showed why the coaching staff thought highly enough of him to make him the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft.
One week after picking up his first NFL sack against Indianapolis, Kerrigan finished his third preseason game with six tackles and a sack.
Heading into Thursday night’s preseason finale, Kerrigan has 10 tackles and two sacks. If he’s able to produce like that this season, it’ll be a victory for everyone involved.
That being said, the rookie hasn’t been perfect. Twice against Baltimore, Kerrigan got a little too excited before the ball was snapped and was called for being offsides. One of those penalties came at the worst-possible time – with the Ravens facing 3rd-and-6 from their own 8-yard line.
Kerrigan’s penalty made the conversion that much easier and Baltimore ended up putting together a seven-play, 96-yard drive that tied the score at 14-14. You can bet the coaching staff showed Kerrigan that play once or twice during their film review.
“I felt more comfortable,” Kerrigan said after the game. “Just like last week, I did some things well. I did some things not so well, like the penalties. I’ve just got to keep getting better and working at things every day.”
Without the benefit of OTAs and minicamp, Kerrigan knows he’s still got a lot to learn.
“I’m getting information from all the veterans,” he said. “They’ve all been really helpful. I just have to keep taking their advice and keep learning every day.”
Growing pains are a part of life for rookies. Mistakes happen; it’s just a matter of learning from them. As far as Kerrigan goes, his teammates aren’t worried.
“He’s out there playing ball,” Orakpo said. “I talk to him here and there to try and help him get his game better, but I’m very confident in him.
“He’s getting better each and every week,” said Orakpo. “He’s coming along very fast. I’m excited for him to be a part of this defense. He’s a quick learner.”
Orakpo is convinced it’s only a matter of time before Kerrigan becomes a mainstay in the backfield.
“He’s making the transition very well, man,” Orakpo said. “He’s getting it faster than when I first got here. I’m excited for him.”
And Orakpo isn’t alone in his praise of Kerrigan.
“That dude is getting so much better so quickly,” said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “It’s not even funny. His learning curve has been awesome. He’s already making plays in the passing game, in the run game and putting pressure on the quarterback. He’s definitely becoming the complete package.”
In a little more than a year, Shanahan has transformed the Redskins from the oldest roster in football to a younger, much hungrier team.
There’s still plenty of work to be done if Washington is going to get back to the glory days, but it’s easy to see that guys like Kerrigan could go a long way towards helping the franchise return to respectability.
If Kerrigan can pick up where Carter left off, then the Redskins will have a great one-two punch on the outside edge. Now let’s just hope no one ever talks Kerrigan into posing for a ridiculous beefcake calendar like the 49ers did to a young and impressionable Carter.