Ever since I watched Paul Kruger in the 2009 Sugar Bowl against Alabama, I’ve liked him as a player. He was a quick, versatile, and high energy defender then, and he still is now. That’s a big reason why he’s been successful as a pass rusher in his young career, and precisely why the Cleveland Browns paid him $40 million this offseason to be their starting strong-side linebacker in new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s 3-4 scheme.
Not everyone’s on board with the Browns paying what they did for Kruger, though. Many have said that he was mostly successful because of playing opposite Terrell Suggs, a former Defensive Player of the Year award winner. In addition to playing with Suggs, many say he’s essentially a one-year wonder, having logged 6.5 sacks in the three years prior to 2012 when he logged nine. Those concerns are undoubtedly real, but so might be his production and fit with the Browns.
Kruger plays hard, which is one of his greatest talents, though it isn’t always viewed as a talent. Not everyone works hard snap-to-snap; that’s why there are so many busts in the NFL each year. That hasn’t been the case with Kruger, however, who was selected in the second round of the 2009 draft. He’s worked hard every snap he’s on the field, as evidenced by his improving hand usage and footwork.
In Super Bowl XLVII against the San Francisco 49ers, he had two sacks, one of which showed off his aforementioned hands and feet.
The Baltimore Ravens were lined up in a three-man front with Kruger at defensive end. He was lined up at the nine technique, just outside the tight end at the right of the formation.
At the snap, the tight end released from the formation and left right tackle Anthony Davis one-on-one with Kruger. Davis was slow out of his stance and Kruger definitely wasn’t. He came downhill in a hurry, rushing wide of the pocket and dipping his inside shoulder as he turned the corner with a wide stride. The dip of the shoulder made it difficult for Davis to place his hands and reroute Kruger, who simultaneously punched his right arm into the chest of Davis.
Once Kruger turned the corner, he whipped his legs around and squared his hips, allowing him to maintain his balance.
With his hips squared, Kruger was in position to make his next move — a swat of Davis’ right arm. He used his left arm to swat Davis’ right, causing Davis to lose his balance while Kruger turned the corner and he finished off quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the sack.
Kruger has flashed these kind of plays in the past, and only in 2012 did he start making them on a consistent basis. That’s what gives the Browns and Horton hope in the defender continuing to produce over the duration of his new five-year deal. It’s possible that Kruger does indeed live up to his deal because of the scheme he’s going to and the versatility he has.
Horton’s scheme is very dynamic, featuring many moving parts before and after the snap. He uses defenders in multiple ways, whether it’s rushing the passer or dropping into coverage, both of which Kruger can do.
Kruger’s an impressive inside and outside rusher and has spent time in pass coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, he spent 129 snaps defending the pass last season, many of which came on fire-zone blitzes that Horton is all too familiar with. It’s likely that Horton uses Kruger in the same way as Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, dropping him down the seam as a hook defender in the three under, three deep zone blitz scheme.
If Horton uses Kruger in similar ways to how he was used last year, there’s a good chance he’ll earn every dollar of his contract, especially considering how hard he works and how much improvement he’s made in becoming a consistent player. The best way to ensure success is to put players in the same positions they were at with their previous team, which Horton has the chance to do with Kruger.