BEREA: Paul Kruger knows many of his critics discount the 13½ sacks he had last season because they viewed him merely as a complementary piece of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
But Kruger also knows he’ll get a chance to prove the skeptics wrong as a three-down outside linebacker in his new team’s 3-4 multi-front defense. He signed a five-year, $40 million deal Tuesday with the Browns, becoming the first free-agent acquisition of the new regime.
“We’ve talked a lot about putting together an aggressive organization with high-character people determined to win and be the best they can be,” Browns CEO Joe Banner said Wednesday during Kruger’s introductory news conference. “Paul is just a top-notch reflection of that.”
Despite praise from his new employers, some doubt Kruger will be able to produce at the same level he did while the Ravens made their run at the Lombardi Trophy.
During Kruger’s breakout 2012 season, his pass-rushing production jumped significantly once standout rush linebacker Terrell Suggs returned from a torn Achilles tendon. Kruger tallied four sacks in eight games without Suggs and 9½ in 12 games, including the playoffs, with Suggs lurking on the other side of the defense, according to ESPN.com.
Some believe Kruger wouldn’t have experienced nearly as much success if Suggs hadn’t returned and demanded the attention of offenses. Kruger is eager to defy those doubters.
“I think leaving Baltimore gives me the opportunity to step out of a couple of shadows you might’ve been in when you were there,” Kruger said. “That’s not a negative thing in any way. Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, those were older brothers for me. They’re guys who I text on a daily basis and I’m very close with.
“But, yeah, I definitely see it as an opportunity for me to be able to show that I can do a lot of good things. And I think regardless of what was talked about on TV during our games and during the games Suggs is on the other side, I’m worried about what’s in front of me. So I don’t read too much into that stuff.”
The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Kruger conceded it’s difficult to leave a championship team, but he also acknowledged the Ravens no longer look anything like they did last season. The Browns won’t complain if their AFC North rival is weaker as a result.
The exodus continued Wednesday with the Ravens releasing starting strong safety Bernard Pollard. In addition to Kruger, inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe fled this week via free agency, signing with the Miami Dolphins. Lewis, a future Hall of Fame inside linebacker, retired a month ago and took a job as an ESPN analyst. Future Hall of Fame free safety Ed Reed, cornerback Cary Williams and nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu are free agents. The Ravens also recently traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick.
“That’s a lot of key guys on the defense to lose,” Kruger said. “I’m sure that there’s a plan in place and it’s a great organization, and I feel like there’s always going to be a plan. But that is definitely a lot of good players leaving. I was really surprised when I heard about a lot of those moves.”
Of course, the Ravens’ most important move this offseason was re-signing quarterback Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million contract. Asked if he believes there’s any resentment toward Flacco with the dismantling of the Ravens, Kruger got a laugh out of reporters and Banner when he said, “It depends who you are talking to.”
Speaking of big investments, the Browns hope Kruger, 27, rewards them for their faith. His deal reportedly includes a guaranteed $20 million.
“We talked early on when I first got the job about wanting an attacking style of defense and to find the personnel that embodies that,” Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said. “I think Paul is the perfect example of that type of player.”
It didn’t take long for Kruger to realize he wasn’t going to return to the Ravens because he wouldn’t receive the deal he wanted. The Browns were 5-11 last season and are far from the contenders the Ravens were during Kruger’s four seasons there. But Kruger said he’s motivated to help spearhead a turnaround and establish himself as an every-down player capable of tormenting quarterbacks, regardless of who his teammates are.
“I wanted to come to a team that was excited about me, and I was excited about them,” Kruger said. “It was a mutual thing. I really felt that was the biggest turning point. The excitement was there, and I felt strongly about being a part of [a situation in which] I could help make a team better.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/browns.abj.