There are plenty of subplots surrounding the defense of the Cleveland Browns heading into the 2015 NFL season.
Can the new additions along the defensive line finally help the Browns stop the run? Can the defensive secondary, one of the league’s top units, be even better this year? Will fans start to understand that Barkevious Mingo‘s role has changed, and that may not be a bad thing?
One name you never really hear mentioned much, however, is that of outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who is entering his third season with the Browns.
Cleveland lured Kruger to town as a free agent in 2013, signing him away from Baltimore with a five-year deal worth $40 million (with almost $20 million guaranteed). The 6-foot-4 Kruger had hit the national spotlight during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run, as he recorded 4.5 sacks during the playoffs after posting nine sacks during the season, which was his first extended action as a starter for the Ravens.
That season Kruger earned a +7.9 grade from Pro Football Focus, the sixth-best of any 3-4 outside linebacker, and his 12.2 Pass Rushing Productivity was the highest score at his position.
At the time, the move carried a bit of a risk for the Browns, as the history of players leaving Baltimore and duplicating their success is long and distinguished: Adalius Thomas, Ed Hartwell, Bart Scott, Duane Starks, Gary Baxter and Jamie Sharper are just a few.
While Kruger started all 16 games in 2013, those fears seemed a bit warranted after he posted just 4.5 sacks and 26 tackles in former defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s system – both down from his final year in Baltimore.
But the arrival of head coach Mike Pettine and Jim O’Neil transformed Kruger into the player the Browns thought they were signing. His 11 sacks – including three against Oakland and big-time ones against Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck, led the team, turning Kruger into the team’s one consistent pass rusher and leading Pro Football Focus to grade Kruger as the defense’s third best member.
Heading into his seventh, and fully established as one of the defense’s key pieces, Kruger is looking to expand his game both on and off the field.
For starters, Kruger is taking on a mentoring role with linebacker Nate Orchard, a fellow Utah alumnus who Kruger got to know while participating in the conditioning program with college players at his alma mater during the off-season.
“Talking to them about what it takes, the mentality and things like that,” Kruger told the team’s website of his role. “(Nate’s) one of those guys that you could just tell was always dialed in to what he needs to do and taking his game to the next level. It’s exciting to see that type of commitment out of a young player.
“I mean look: Pass rushers are important players. That’s just the bottom line of the business. You always want to have a lot of guys who can get to the quarterback. (Adding Orchard) is not offensive or threatening to me at all. It benefits the team and the defense, for sure.”
It may not sound like much, and it very well may be a common occurrence on other teams, but veteran mentoring has been lacking among the Browns under previous regimes. Either players were not comfortable in that role or, more likely, the continual turnover of coaches and the roster prevented players from looking out for the next generation.
Thankfully that seems to be changing under Pettine, as we’re seeing with players like Kruger, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and quarterback Josh McCown, who have been very open about their willingness to be team players.
Kruger’s willingness to do whatever is needed isn’t confined to just the film room, however. He’s taking to the field this year as he looks to expand his role on defense, even if it takes him out of his preferred role as a pass rusher.
During Organized Team Activities this spring, Kruger reportedly spent time working as a SAM linebacker, focusing on covering tight ends and supporting the run defense, something that Kruger rarely did in 2014 and an area of his game where he has always struggled.
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“If you have an assignment on the play, you have to be true to that,” Kruger told the team’s website. “No matter what you see, you have to fulfill your assignment. You have to take care of your business before you go out and try and make a great play. It boils down to playing team defense. A guy can miss a tackle here, a guy can miss a tackle there, but there’s always something that could’ve been done by somebody else. We just have to get better as unit, which starts individually.
“From what I’ve already seen, the dedication level is just jumping off the board. You can feel the energy. I think we’re really coming together as a full unit, where there are leaders at every position.”
Other players are going to receive more attention between now and the season opener on Sept. 13 against the New York Jets. But if Kruger can continue to play the way he did in 2014 while also making the players around him better, we’ll be hearing his name plenty once the games start for real.