BEREA: Browns players were shocked to learn outside linebacker Paul Kruger became the most recent victim of the organization’s aggressive youth movement.
“It was a shock, but this business, it never surprises you,” two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden said. “There’s one or two [moves] every year that you kind of scratch your head on. It’s a dude that you thought was going to be part of the change.
“It just shows guys you’ve got to be making plays. It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and if you’re not making plays, anybody can go.”
Kruger, 30, is the biggest name among the 12 players cut by the franchise Monday. He started all 46 games in which he appeared with the Browns the past three seasons and had been working as a starter throughout this preseason.
“The decision is an organizational decision,” coach Hue Jackson said. “It’s what we thought was best to do, so we move forward.
“We let people go because there is a performance that we want. It’s not just him. I’m saying everybody. And I think when you let players go now, you give them a chance to catch on at other places, so I think the respectful thing to do if you don’t see a guy having the potential to make your team. I think the right thing to do is to move forward and move on.”
Rookie second-round draft pick Emmanuel Ogbah will likely become the new starting outside linebacker opposite Nate Orchard. Ogbah moved back to outside linebacker Monday after spending most of training camp at defensive end. Rookie fourth-round selection Joe Schobert, third-year veteran Cam Johnson and undrafted rookie Jason Neill are on the roster, too.
“Hopefully we will settle on a group and let them play,” Jackson said. “I think that is what we have to do. Whether it’s fight or flight, we just have to put them out there and let them play and then coach the heck out of them.”
Orchard is now the team’s only outside linebacker who has registered a sack in the NFL. He had three last season as a rookie.
Apparently the Browns are banking on the most recent collegiate production of Orchard (18.5 sacks for Utah in 2014), Ogbah (13 sacks for Oklahoma State in 2015) and Schobert (9.5 sacks for Wisconsin in 2015), even though the three of them have combined for just one sack through the first three preseason games.
“We have guys that can do some big things for us,” Orchard said. “Once the season gets rolling around, I know we’re going to make a big difference.”
In a statement posted on Twitter, Kruger thanked the Browns but expressed disapproval with the way the team cut him.
“Although completely miss handled [sic], unfortunate and absolutely the wrong decision to release me I do wish the Browns, and especially my teammate brothers great success,” he wrote.
Narrowing the field
Kruger was the Browns’ only major surprise in their roster cuts to 75 players. All NFL teams are required to trim to 75 before 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The Browns will host the Chicago Bears in the preseason finale beginning at 8 p.m. Thursday, and Jackson said the starters will play. Then the team must reduce its roster to 53 players before 4 p.m. Saturday.
The Browns announced they terminated the contracts of Kruger, defensive end Nick Hayden and quarterback Austin Davis.
They waived nickel cornerback K’Waun Williams, kicker Travis Coons, tight ends E.J. Bibbs and David Reeves, wide receivers Josh Boyce and Ed Eagan, fullback Robert Hughes, strong safety Sean Baker and offensive lineman Cory Tucker. They placed running back Glenn Winston (shoulder) and nose tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample (shoulder) on injured reserve.
Without Kruger, the list of veteran leaders on the defense is essentially limited to Haden, inside linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Tramon Williams.
“We’ve got to grow up real fast,” Orchard said.
Former Browns CEO Joe Banner and ex-General Manager Mike Lombardi signed Kruger in 2013 to a five-year, $40 million deal as an unrestricted free agent from the Baltimore Ravens. He was scheduled to make base salaries of $6.5 million in 2016 and $7 million next year.
Kruger had 13.5 sacks, including 4.5 in the playoffs, during his final season with the Ravens and helped them win Super Bowl XLVII.
But his sack totals were disappointing in two of his three seasons with the Browns. He had 4.5 in 2013, 11 in 2014 and 2.5 in 2015. Last season, however, the previous coaching staff assigned Kruger to drop into pass coverage more than rush the quarterback.
Defending the run was never considered a strength of Kruger and likely contributed to his demise. Still, he was the only proven NFL pass rusher left on the roster.
“They believe in the guys we have, even though they might not have any stats yet,” Haden said. “With Ogbah and [rookie defensive end Carl] Nassib, those dudes that we drafted, the coaches have a lot of confidence in them and their ability to make plays.”
In the spring, Kruger admitted he was worried the Browns would cut him when they started their youth movement this offseason.
“Yeah, I was definitely, I guess anticipating something,” he said in April. “Made me a little nervous. I’m not going to lie.”
It took a few months, but Kruger’s gut feeling turned out to be right.
The decision will fuel the perception that the franchise is focused on the next two years instead of 2016.
“I can’t worry about perception and what everybody thinks,” Jackson said. “Our team is getting ready for a game on Thursday against Chicago, and next week the season starts.”
The players insist they don’t believe the narrative popular among outsiders.
“Everybody’s looking for this year to be kind of a change,” said Schobert, who received some practice reps with the first-team defense last week. “2016 will be an exciting year, and I don’t think it’s a season to write off. I think we’ll surprise a lot of people.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook www.facebook.com/abj.sports.