Kruger eager for lead role with Browns

By TOM WITHERS - AP Sports Writer
    2013-03-13 18:09

BEREA, Ohio (AP) - An unexpected purge pushed Paul Kruger out of Baltimore, where he was just one of the guys.

Cleveland's early spending splurge in free agency landed with the Browns, who are counting on the linebacker to get to the quarterback and lead their restocked defense.

They hope he can be a star.

Cashing in on a breakout season with the Ravens, Kruger signed a five-year, $40 million contract on Wednesday with the Browns. The 27-year-old was a part-time player on one of the NFL's top defenses. He's now gone from a Super Bowl winner to a perennial loser - the Browns have lost at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons. But that hardly matters to Kruger, who wants to prove last season was no fluke.

``Leaving Baltimore gives you the opportunity to step out of a couple shadows that you might have been in when you were there,'' Kruger said. ``That's not a negative thing in any way. Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, those are older brothers to me, and they're guys who I text on a daily basis and I'm very close with.

``But, yeah, I definitely see that as an opportunity for me to be able to show that I can do a lot of things.''

The Browns began free agency more than $47 million under the salary cap, and in the first 24 hours of the market being open, they signed Kruger, lineman Desmond Bryant and linebacker Quentin Groves, three players to begin the transformation from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4 multifront defense under new coordinator Ray Horton.

Kruger finished with 13 1/2 sacks last season - 4 1/2 in the playoffs - when he finally got a chance to start after being a reserve during his first three seasons. Of course, it was tough for him to crack Baltimore's starting lineup, but there's also a theory that he only put up big statistics because offenses were busy double-teaming Suggs, Lewis and Ngata.

Kruger has struggled to stop the run, which has limited his playing time.

``I just want to be an every down player that's really effective in creating a strong force on defense,'' he said. ``That's the biggest thing I want to change, 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.''

Kruger will start at one outside linebacker spot with Jabaal Sheard, the team's best pass rusher last season, switching from an end to linebacker.

``I'm ready to work, prove myself, and make plays,'' Sheard said on Twitter. ``New position OLB I'm hype.''

With millions to spend, the Browns made upgrading the defense a top priority in free agency. There's more needs to be addressed, but CEO Joe Banner said he's pleased with the team's early splash.

``You go into this with a plan,'' he said. ``You're competing with 31 other teams, so you don't know what your success rate is going to be. But we feel great about what's happened so far. Frankly it's gone as well if not better than we were hoping.''

So, what's next?

``Soon to find out,'' Banner said softly.

The Browns would like to find a starting cornerback, and they've publicly stated their desire to bring in a quarterback to compete with Brandon Weeden, who had an uneven rookie season. Banner would not pinpoint what the team would target next as it tries to climb its way out of the league's basement.

``We're just going to look at where we feel there's opportunities with quality players,'' Banner said. ``Again, part of the long-term plan is to fill spots with quality players that we think can be part of building eventually a championship team as opposed to stopgap measures.''

Banner has refused to discuss any of the Browns' own free agents, and he sidestepped whether there's a chance Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson will be re-signed.

``I'm still not going to answer that question,'' Banner said. ``Once that situation finalizes itself, I'll answer that question.''

Kruger has been surprised by the mass exodus in Baltimore. Since the end of the season, the Ravens have lost Lewis to retirement, traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin, let inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbee leave as a free agent and released safety Bernard Pollard.

Those changes have weakened the defending champions.

``It's definitely going to be a different group of guys,'' Kruger said. ``That's a lot of key guys on the defense to lose. I'm sure that there's a plan in place and it's a great organization. But that is definitely a lot of good players leaving.''

Kruger is proud of his time with Baltimore, where he learned work ethic, how to compete, and most importantly, how to win. He intends to carry that knowledge to Cleveland.

``I definitely want to be a leader,'' he said. ``No guy walks into a new locker room and immediately becomes the captain or whatever. You have to earn the respect of your teammates and you have to create bonds and demonstrate you're a guy that people can follow and trust.

``I don't expect that to happen overnight. I don't expect that to be an easy process. I'll definitely be somebody the team can rely on and the defense can look to to make plays.''


NOTES: Banner confirmed the team agreed to terms with TE Gary Barnidge, who played for Browns coach Rob Chudzinski in Carolina last season. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder started five games and finished with six catches for 78 yards and a touchdown.

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