He wasn’t fulfilled.
Kruger spent most of his four years in Baltimore as a part-time player, but this was worse. In the biggest game of his life, and the conclusion of his best season, he played just 22 of 62 defensive snaps, despite two sacks of San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick and another tackle for loss.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing on the sidelines?’” said Kruger, who said he played 17 snaps, five fewer than in the official gamebook.
Kruger left the Ravens the next month, signing a five-year, $40.5 million deal with the Browns. A deal of that magnitude comes with the same expectation on both sides — that he’ll be an every-down player at outside linebacker.
Kruger, 27, has been seeking the opportunity since he entered the league as a second-round pick from Utah in 2009 and is fueled further by his disappointment in the Super Bowl.
“That was a little bit extreme. I usually played about 30-40 plays a game,” he said. “So I was a little bit confused during the Super Bowl.
“But, it is what it is, we won the game. And it was an awesome ride there, so I’ve got no complaints. But now I’m in a position where I’m going to be able to play every down. So being effective that way is where you can make a mark for sure.”
All that time on the sideline muted his postgame celebration.
“He had just won the Super Bowl and he was, ‘Gosh dammit, I didn’t get enough playing time,’” said his brother Dave, an undrafted rookie defensive end with the Browns. “I was like, ‘Bro, you just had two sacks in the Super Bowl and you just won. It’s not a big deal.’
“But that’s the mentality Paul has, he’s the biggest competitor I’ve ever seen. He’d just won the Super Bowl and he’s worried about not getting enough reps so he can show his true talent — and he had two sacks.
“He’s not thinking about it all the time, but he was a little annoyed at the time.”
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect me,” Paul said. “I’m a competitive guy and I feel like a lot of players would feel the same. I always want to be on the field, especially in a game like that, when I felt I was pretty dominant against the guy I was playing. I just didn’t understand it.”
Kruger (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) is Cleveland’s starter at left outside linebacker, where he’s more comfortable and had his most production with the Ravens. He’s also taken snaps on the right side as coordinator Ray Horton demands flexibility.
The Browns have depth at outside linebacker with Jabaal Sheard starting on the right and rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo and veteran free agent Quentin Groves coming off the bench. But Kruger is at the top of the depth chart.
“Paul Kruger has a tremendous upside,” outside linebackers coach Brian Baker said. “I think he’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be. I’m excited because he likes to be coached and I think there’s some little things we can do to make him better.”
Baker said it’s clear Kruger plays with great desire, but he doesn’t think proving something to the Ravens is the primary motivation.
“He’s a guy that has that I-want-to-show-you-that-I’m-the-best,” Baker said. “I think that that’s something that’s in his heart, I think that’s who he is and what he is. So whether it’s something to prove or that’s just the way he is when he wakes up in the morning, I think that’s probably the latter.”
Kruger made six of his seven career starts last year, totaling nine sacks in the regular season and another 4.5 in the postseason. He also had a personal-best 42 tackles.
Kruger said the Ravens’ 3-4 scheme is similar to the one being installed by Horton, but with more balance — Terrell Suggs was always rushing the quarterback in Baltimore, while the Browns will rush and drop all of their outside guys.
“That’s a big difference,” said Kruger, who has 15.5 sacks in 51 regular-season games. “Other than that, there’s a ton of similarities, ton of crossover. Obviously in Baltimore for a lot of years they were dominant.”
He thinks the Browns can join the Ravens on that level.
“They were a good defense last year and I think with the additions and the new coaching staff, I just think the potential is kind of unlimited,” he said.
Kruger looked like a big-money free agent on the first day in pads with multiple sacks and pressures. He had been somewhat of a forgotten man since signing the giant deal in March.
“In my opinion, that’s how it should be,” he said. “I think the best way to make a name for yourself and make a mark is by doing it on the field. The last thing I want to do is be in the news for nothing. Our defense is full of guys who want to win and they’re selfless players, so I’m definitely in the right spot.”
As the Indians’ Nick Swisher can attest, the goodwill of the preseason can disappear quickly for a marquee free agent if the statistics don’t correspond to the dollars.
Kruger is expected to at least match his 2012 production and lead the attacking, aggressive, disruptive pass rush Horton promises.
“I wouldn’t use the word pressure; I do feel a lot of motivation,” Kruger said. “I feel a sense of urgency because they put players in positions to be successful, so I feel like they’ve given me that opportunity.”
Kruger has been an asset in the classroom as the Browns make the conversion from the 4-3, but it’s on the field where he’s been most impressive.
“First of all, I’m just going to say Paul Kruger’s a beast,” Mingo said. “The guy’s good and I just love watching the way he plays the game.
“The stuff that he does, it blows all of us away. And a lot of us try to emulate what he does, but it’s something that only he can do.”
The beast says his athleticism separates him from the pack.
“I’ve heard some people disagree with it, but I think my best attribute is my athleticism,” he said. “I’m not the most physical guy on the field and I’ve never been known to bowl people over.”
“He’s not deceptively athletic. He’s athletic,” Baker said. “He’s a 265-pound man that can move, that can change direction. He has great hips. He’s an athletic big man.”
Who is more than ready to be on the field every snap.
“Playing every down for Paul is going to be a huge thing and people are going to be surprised when they see how good Paul Kruger is,” Dave Kruger said.