With nearly $50 million in salary cap space and a new 3-4 defensive scheme, the Cleveland Browns are expected to be fairly active when free agency begins on March 12. One player they may target is linebacker Paul Kruger, a pass-rush specialist who doesn't seem likely to get a new deal from the Baltimore Ravens, where he's spent the last four years.
Kruger would meet the need for the Browns to bring on more 3-4 pass-rushing talent, but the question is how much he'll cost. Though to some extent the Browns can take a "price no object" approach to free agency this year, that doesn't mean they can throw their cash around without regard.
The biggest concern with bringing Kruger into the fold is how much he can realistically contribute. Prior to the 2012 season, Kruger was primarily a situational pass-rusher in Baltimore; in 2011, he played just 373 total snaps before seeing that number increase last season to 1,068 (up through the Super Bowl). The increase in playing time resulted from him taking over not only the starting outside linebacker role from the departed Jarret Johnson but also the pass-rushing duties of Terrell Suggs, who was recovering from a partially torn Achilles tendon.
Kruger handled the increased workload well, grading out sixth overall amongst 3-4 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus. He led the Ravens in sacks with nine in the regular season and 4.5 more in the playoffs, had 56 combined tackles on the year (regular season and playoffs), forced three fumbles with two recoveries and notched his second career interception.
For the first time in his professional career, Kruger was asked to contribute more as a run-stopper than as a pass-rusher and he handled it well. Though he ultimately played more pass-rushing snaps than against the run (528 to 411)he was lined up against running backs over six times more often than in 2011 without any distinct decrease in the quality of his play. Though not a natural run-stopper, he proved that he could handle the job.
The other upside to Kruger is that he's also capable of performing defensive end duties, both in a 3-4 capacity but also in 4-3 situations. This makes him incredibly versatile for a team like the Browns, who will likely not be working out of a 3-4 base on every play in 2013. Granted, Kruger's primary responsibility in Cleveland would be as a pass-rushing outside linebacker, but his capacity to bring an added dimension to the Browns' defensive scheme carries with it added value.
The question is how much value and at what price. Kruger's rookie deal was worth a total of $3.25 million over four years plus a $1 million signing bonus—a number befitting his second-round draft status. He made a total of $865,000 in 2012, with $615,000 of it coming from his base salary and $250,000 in bonuses. Clearly, he won't be coming at such a bargain for the Browns or any team that has interest in picking him up in free agency.
What needs to be considered is how much playing time the Browns anticipate giving Kruger, what his responsibilities will be, whether or not he's considered to be in his prime (at age 27) and if his strong 2012 performance was because he was in a contract year or because he was finally hitting his stride. Even with so much money to spend, the Browns need to avoid overpaying for Kruger simply because he's now a hot name and the demand from other teams may drive his price tag upward.
If the Browns are interested in Kruger for his pass-rushing abilities only and plan to rotate him in situationally, then they won't be willing to pay multi-millions per season for someone who will play limited snaps. If Kruger's role is comparable to the one he played last year in Baltimore, then his salary should be commensurate with his full-time duties.
Of course, a top pass-rusher, even in a situational capacity, will still command a high payday—these days the ability to get to a quarterback is second in importance only to the play of a quality quarterbacks. But the question is whether or not Kruger is one of the NFL's top pass-rushers, or if he's simply the best free-agent pass-rusher this year—a distinction that comes with disparate pay grades.
Though the Browns can afford to pay Kruger anywhere between what he's worth and what he's asking, keeping an eye toward paying their young talent in coming years means they need to figure out his value to them—and not to the league at large—before making an offer. This is a gamble, of course, because it may mean Kruger will choose a higher-paying team. But the Browns need to take a measured approach in order to make the right decisions.
What makes sense for Kruger, generally speaking, is around $15 million over three years, perhaps augmented by playing time-related bonuses that will incentivize his continued improvement in defending the run. It's the one area of his overall game that needs refinement (though not so much that he's a liability), and if he can improve it quickly, his snaps will increase and he can be rewarded financially.
That seems to be a middle-of-the-road contract for a linebacker with emergent three-down ability but a two-down profile and just one season of regular contributions. It's a massive jump in pay when compared to Kruger's rookie deal but not an exorbitant amount that overestimates his talents.
Whether or not Kruger would sign a contract like that depends on where he'd like to play and what he thinks he's worth. For that kind of cash, however, the Browns should at least try to make a run at Kruger when he hits free agency next week.