The Redskins' Brian Orakpo and the Packers' Clay Matthews were drafted just 13 spots apart in the first round in 2009. Orakpo was taken with the 13th overall pick, and Matthews was taken 26th when the Packers traded up to get another first-rounder after selecting B.J. Raji at No. 9.
The two outside linebackers went on to finish 1-2 in sacks recorded by rookies last year, with Orakpo getting 11 and Matthews 10. Both totals were rookie records for their respective teams, and they became two of only three rookies selected to the Pro Bowl last year.
What's more, both have had impressive stretches of consistent production, which is somewhat unusual for young players. In the first half of last season, Orakpo had four straight games with at least one-half sack, compiling 3½ over that time. His pace slowed down after that, but he did add four in one game in Week 14 vs. Oakland, and he's already had sacks in back-to-back games this year again.
"He's a challenge," Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He's got both some power – he can push you back, he plays with pretty good leverage – and he's obviously got the speed where he can beat you around the edge. So when you have that combination, some power and some speed, you're a little bit more than one-dimensional."
Sounds a lot like Matthews, who had at least one sack in four straight games late last season, notching six overall during that stretch. Then he began this season with consecutive three-sack outings and currently leads the league with seven.
"He plays with a lot of energy and he's got a lot of athletic ability and he fits well in the scheme," Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan said. "If you don't account for him, you're going to be in for a long day, and even if you do account for him, you're going to be in for a long day a majority of the time."
Matthews obviously has a sizable lead in the sack race so far this year, at 7-2, but the Packers are still searching for a consistent pass-rush complement to him on the other side. In the meantime, Orakpo could start to find more freedom if Washington nose tackle Albert Haynesworth continues to pick up his game, forcing defenses to account for his inside presence.
Sunday's game won't necessarily be decided by who gets more sacks between the two second-year stars, but it will be fun to watch from possession to possession which player can make the bigger impact.
Away from his keyboard
Linebacker Maurice Simpkins, whom the Packers signed from their practice squad to the active roster on Thursday, was working as a computer programmer at this time last year.
In fact, after two years playing indoor football for the Rock River Raptors in Rockford, Ill., in 2007-08, Simpkins had settled into a job in Atlanta – working for a firm based in Philadelphia – when Rock River coach Rik Richards called asking if he'd want to play another season of indoor football in Green Bay, for the Blizzard.
"I wasn't really focused on being in the NFL," Simpkins said of his playing time in Green Bay's Resch Center, just across the street from Lambeau Field. "I was just focused on dominating every game I went out in the indoor league and hopefully getting a shot. And when it came, an opportunity for me, I turned my focus toward the NFL and just worked hard trying to make it."
With the Blizzard this past spring, Simpkins caught the eye of the Packers' scouting department, which prompted a call 10 days into training camp when injuries created a shortage at linebacker. The longest of longshots, having to come to camp late and learn the defensive system on the fly, Simpkins showed enough to earn a practice-squad contract following camp, and now the injuries to Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar have him potentially one play away – behind A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop – from taking a snap in a live NFL game.
"It means a lot," said Simpkins, who came out of Coastal Carolina in 2006. "It's a dream I've had for 20 years of playing football, and I'm grateful the organization gave me a chance, and has faith in me to feel that I can perform to a level that they're looking for."
Simpkins came a long way during camp, saying he finally started to get comfortable with the defensive scheme during the final two preseason games. He got his most extensive playing time in the preseason finale at Kansas City and led the defense with seven tackles, plus another stop on special teams.
In a strange twist of fate, during Week 1 Simpkins traveled with the team to Philadelphia, his likely destination to resume his computer programming job had the foray into pro football not worked out. He even had dinner with a group of guys he might have been sharing office space with that very week, but instead his employer was the Packers.
And now, a player many thought was just a training-camp fill-in is actually on the 53-man roster, another example of what can happen when a guy never gives up on his dream.
"I used to go to the weight room every day and still work out as if it was training for football," he said. "It was something that had become so routine with me over the years that I could never really get away from it. I had one of my best friends there in Atlanta, and we went to the gym every day and we worked out as if we were going to training camp the next day.
"But in reality I was going home that same day, cooking dinner, eating dinner, and getting up the next morning to do computer programming for the next eight, 10 hours."
In the Top 50
NFL Network's series The Top 100: NFL's Greatest Players will air the segment featuring players ranked from No. 50 up to No. 41 at 8 p.m. CT Thursday. The segment will include former Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke.
Players are "presented" during the series by notable figures in sports and entertainment, and Nitschke will be presented by former Green Bay teammate Jerry Kramer.
The 10-part series counts down the 100 greatest players in NFL history, as ranked by a Blue Ribbon Panel of football experts that includes current and former GMs, former players, coaches, historians and Hall of Fame voters.
Other Packers who have been featured thus far in the series were cornerback Herb Adderley (No. 64), quarterback Bart Starr (No. 57) and offensive tackle Forrest Gregg (No. 54).
The only changes to the Packers' injury report on Thursday were that tackle Chad Clifton (knee) was upgraded to a full participant, while safety Nick Collins (knee) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) were upgraded to limited participants. All three sat out practice on Wednesday.
Collins' status was probably the most precarious of the three going into the week, but Head Coach Mike McCarthy didn't seem overly concerned at this point.
"Nick's played through a lot of tough spots physically, and I think this week will be no different," McCarthy said.
Tackle Mark Tauscher (shoulder), linebackers Brandon Chillar (shoulder) and Nick Barnett (wrist), cornerback Sam Shields (calf) and fullback Quinn Johnson (glute) all sat out for the second straight day.
Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee appear to be the leading candidates to replace Shields as the nickel back this week, while Bush is also taking reps at safety to help with the depth at that position.
Safeties Derrick Martin (ankle) and Charlie Peprah (quad) and defensive end Cullen Jenkins (hand) were all full participants for the second straight day. McCarthy said Peprah "isn't 100 percent yet" but is being given the full week to get ready to potentially start in place of Morgan Burnett, who was placed on injured reserve on Thursday.
For the Redskins, the only change to their injury report was that punter Josh Bidwell (right hip) was placed on injured reserve, so the newly signed Hunter Smith will be their punter.
Offensive tackle Trent Williams (toe) remained a limited participant, while quarterback Donovan McNabb (thigh), safeties LaRon Landry (wrist) and Chris Horton (ankle), and guard Kory Lichtensteiger (knee) were all full participants for the second straight day.
Additional coverage – Oct. 7