Earlier this week, league sources spoke to the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot and said that among the Cleveland Browns' free agent targets are two pass rushers—the Detroit Lions' Cliff Avril and the Baltimore Ravens' Paul Kruger.
Kruger isn't surprising—his name has been long attached to the Browns' free agency plans, but Avril is something new altogether. Either would certainly help the Browns transition to a 3-4 defense go more smoothly and provide the team with a much-needed boost to their ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. But who is the better fit?
Kruger was the Ravens' sack leader in 2012, recording nine in the regular season and 4.5 in the playoffs and had a total of 17 additional quarterback hits and 43 hurries in his first year as a nearly full-time starter. Avril, too, led the Lions in sacks with 9.5 during the regular season, and added five other quarterback hits and 20 hurries, and he also has more experience as a starter than Kruger.
That added experience, however, will come at a premium for the Browns. He made $10.6 million in 2012 while playing under the franchise tag and at 26 years old (he'll be 27 in April) with an average of 9.5 sacks a year, he could be looking for around $10 million per year from his new contract.
Though that may also be what Kruger is seeking, he's less likely to get it with less proven time as a three-down linebacker. Demand could raise his pay, of course, but pound-for-pound, season-for-season, Avril is worth the larger payday between these two players.
Because Avril is more worthy of the money, from an experience perspective, that could make the Browns more willing to give it to him rather than to Kruger, assuming Kruger is looking for a similar payout. Though the Browns have nearly $50 million in salary cap space to work with, it doesn't mean they can spend without regard. Kruger and Avril may be targets for similar reasons, but their values could be wildly different to the Browns, and that will play a factor in their decision.
The concern with Kruger is that he's had but one year with a full-time workload of over 1,000 snaps, and that he did so in a contract year. While it's reassuring to know that he successfully transitioned from a situational pass rusher to a do-it-all linebacker—including run-stopping and coverage—in the span of one offseason, questions still remain about his ability to continue improving in an expanded role once he's well-paid.
It also depends on what the Browns are looking for in a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Do they want someone to take on the duties Kruger had prior to 2012, when he played no more than 375 snaps as a specialist, or do they want someone to do what Kruger did in 2012? One, of course, pays more than the other, because there's no reason to reward someone who is going to play a third of all snaps the same amount of money typically due a three-down linebacker.
It's quite possible that the Browns are seeking a pass-rushing specialist foremost and a complete linebacker secondarily. The Browns aren't hurting for talent in their front seven as it presently stands; rather, they just need a few additional pieces to round it out as they move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base.
That being said, though, the fact that the Browns are already being linked to these two high-profile soon-to-be free agents certainly says that they'd want either Kruger or Avril to contribute as much as possible; otherwise, they'd be offering them a very small salary, and both men could find better deals with more playing time elsewhere.
Of course, none of these potential negotiations will occur in a vacuum. The Browns will have to compete with other teams to snag either Kruger or Avril, and even if one is more coveted by the team than the other, that doesn't mean that's who they'll get when free agency begins on Tuesday (or when talks between teams and agents begin this weekend).
That's not to say that if the Browns want Avril but get Kruger that they'll be settling, but things can certainly go a different way than the team may be imagining presently. They could also end up with neither of the two.
Though Kruger was the Ravens' best pass rusher in 2012 and though he showed he can handle the many duties required of a full-time linebacker, Avril appears to be the better target for the Browns in free agency. That goes double if the two are looking to command a similar salary with their next deals. Avril has proven more thus far in his career, is the same age as Kruger (or, rather, is about to be) and would make a more immediate impact on the state of the Browns' pass rush and linebacking corps.
Granted, Kruger isn't a bad option either, but when weighing him against Avril, Avril would be the best fit in Cleveland this year—as long as they can get him.