BEREA — Paul Kruger is the face of the transitioning Browns defense.
The role is natural following a five-year, $40 million contract, including $20 million guaranteed. A shiny, new Super Bowl ring. And his position as the initial acquisition of the new Browns regime.
“It’s a very exciting day for us, the first chance we’ve had to take last year’s team and try to improve upon it and we’re very, very excited to have Paul here,” CEO Joe Banner said Wednesday at a news conference introducing Kruger, who signed as a free agent. “We’ve talked a lot about putting together an aggressive organization of high-character people determined to win and be the best they can be, and Paul is just a top-notch reflection of that and we feel lucky and excited to have him here.
“It’s a great start and I’m proud that it’s the first signing of the new leadership of the organization and Paul is so reflective of what we stand for.”
Kruger, 27, left the Ravens after four years and a career-high nine sacks in 2012 and hopes to be part of a shift of power in the AFC North. He credited the Baltimore organization and his high-profile former teammates for teaching him so much, but is eager to step into the spotlight.
Kruger (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) should fit seamlessly as an outside linebacker in the multiple-front 3-4 defense being planned by new coordinator Ray Horton. Kruger played the position in a part-time role for the Ravens — he was a pass-rush specialist with seven career starts — and had a breakthrough 2012, capped by 4.5 postseason sacks during Baltimore’s run to the championship.
He and the Browns believe his arrow’s pointed up and there’s room to grow.
“Just to be an every-down player that’s really effective in creating a strong force on defense,” said Kruger, who was joined by his parents. “That’s the biggest thing I want to change is just being somebody you can rely on during the whole game.
I think that I was deemed as a pass rusher only and it’s something I think I’ll be able to show people I can be effective on every snap.
“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. That’s not a negative thing in any way. I mean, 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.”
Kruger finished last season with a career-high 42 tackles and six pass defensed, but his play against the run has been questioned. Browns coach Rob Chudzinski isn’t worried.
“We talked early on when I first got the job about wanting an attacking style of defense and finding the personnel that embodies that and I think Paul is a perfect example of that type of player, a relentless guy, a high motor, a very physical player and he plays with a passion that you love to watch and see players play with,” he said. “He is going to outwork people on the field and obviously you know his pass-rush ability and the explosiveness he has there. But you see those abilities in the run game and that’s what we are looking for in Paul is to be able to play and be a three-down player.”
Hiring Chudzinski and Horton were the first steps in Banner’s plan to transform the defense into a more aggressive unit that attacks and pressures the quarterback. The Kruger signing was followed by defensive lineman Desmond Bryant (five years, $34 million, $15 million guaranteed) on Tuesday and outside linebacker Quentin Groves (two years, $2.8 million) on Wednesday. The new trio combined for 17 sacks in 2012.
“Well, obviously we’ve added a few guys that are going to address some areas that are important to us,” Chudzinski said. “You look at the front seven, it’s a key area.”
The addition of Bryant increases the depth on the line to a point where a trade of Phil Taylor or Ahtyba Rubin seems possible. But Banner downplayed the issue, saying six linemen are expected to make the team and they have six on the roster — Bryant, Taylor, Rubin, Billy Winn, John Hughes and Ishmaa’ily Kitchen.
“There’s no reason to think we have an abundance at this point,” Banner said. “It’s a crucial area as we look at the team. We feel good about where we’re at, numbers-wise.”
Kruger has the versatility to play end when the Browns go to a four-linemen alignment in nickel situations, according to Chudzinski. Kruger said the option of staying with the Ravens disappeared quickly but mentioned the Saints as a suitor.
He was drawn to the Browns.
“I’d say the biggest reason is just the excitement that surrounded this organization,” he said. “I wanted to come to a team that was excited about me and I was excited about them. It was a mutual thing.
“I’ve only been here a short amount of time, and it already feels like home. I’m just really excited. I think it’s a strong group of guys. It’s been a tough team to face. I think it’s a team on the verge of doing some great things.”
The Browns have plenty of remaining holes, including safety. They missed out on two of the top options, as San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson signed with Tampa Bay and Houston’s Glover Quin with Detroit.
Banner, without divulging his plan, said the Browns will continue to look for good fits across the roster. He was satisfied with the first two days of free agency and rejected the notion Kruger must be a dominant player to make the signing a signature first step of the organization’s latest rebuilding project.
“If Paul comes as we anticipate and he’s an important part of a successful defense and plays at the level that he’s been playing, frankly, and is productive as he’s been, I think that will help move the ball forward quite a bit,” Banner said.
Kruger’s ready for the challenge. And to be the face of the defense, with beard attached.
“I think we have a great opportunity to start something really special this year and I think it’s just a matter of us putting it all together and making it happen,” he said.