The development of Paul Kruger, above, has become even more… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
The mystery that enveloped Ravens rookie Paul Kruger last season was, in the end, not so much a mystery as it was an indoctrination into the subtleties of life in the NFL.
Kruger, a first-day draft pick last April, was inactive for seven of the Ravens' first eight games in 2009. Given the firestorm of controversy coming out of chat rooms and talk radio, you would have thought that he played quarterback instead of linebacker.
Turns out Kruger was a quarterback in high school in Orem, Utah, before switching to defense at Utah, where he quickly became one of the best pass rushers in the Mountain West Conference. That's what the Ravens saw in Kruger - pass-rush prowess with a feverish style of play - when they selected him in the second round to play their hybrid position of linebacker-defensive end.
What became apparent to the Ravens was that Kruger was fine as a situational pass rusher who could drop into coverage, but he would have trouble holding up against bigger, stronger offensive tackles when he put his hand in the dirt. That limited dimension - plus the fact that he never played special teams - bumped him onto the inactive list when measured against players who played well in the kicking game.
The offseason plan calls for Kruger to pack pounds and muscle onto his 6-foot-4, 260-pound athlete's body. And with this week's free-agent departure of defensive lineman Dwan Edwards, the Ravens need Kruger to make up for lost ground.
"Our long-range plan was to get him bigger, get him stronger, so he could be the guy who could play the rush [position] and be the end," said Greg Mattison, the team's defensive coordinator. "That's where his next step has to be: He's got to have a tremendous offseason in gaining body weight and strength. That allows you to say he now can be possibly the guy that can play end and rush."
Mattison believes Kruger could handle both positions weighing 275 pounds.
After a season of wild rumors and abundant bench time, Kruger, 24, is eager to deliver. His humbling rookie season was filled with educational lessons.
"I never learned so much about football," he said when the season ended. "In the past, I've kind of just been an athlete. Even in college, at a new position I played [soon after] my mission. I could run off the ball and make a play. It was real natural for me."
His first NFL season, however, was very trying. Kruger played in nine regular-season games, starting once in Green Bay when starter Terrell Suggs was out with an injury. His season statistics were modest - 12 tackles, four passes defended, one interception - but the interception was crucial in an overtime win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He did not play in either postseason game.
"I'm a competitive guy, and not being on the field was a pretty difficult thing for me," Kruger said. "I would say that's kind of what I had to deal with, not being the guy I used to be."
Kruger's bench time is hardly unprecedented. Edwards was a second-round Ravens pick in 2004 out of Oregon State; he played in only four games his rookie season and had only one start his first three years.
The Ravens gave only vague, general answers to questions about Kruger's limited appearances during the season, but coach John Harbaugh and Mattison recently expressed confidence Kruger will turn into a big contributor on defense as expected.
"We said this before: I'm convinced Paul Kruger is going to be a really good player," Harbaugh said at the team's season-ending news conference. "Paul needs to put some weight on, get in that weight room and go to work. And he's committed to doing that. I'm sure he will. We're going to keep a close eye on him in there, for sure. He'll be becoming that guy that we want him to be on the edge of the defense."
In a news conference Jan. 19, Harbaugh said the Ravens weren't disappointed in Kruger: "Paul Kruger backed up Terrell Suggs this year. He played when Terrell was hurt, and he played very well. I think it's hard to say that he's going to get as much playing time necessarily as you would like [because] he's got a great player in front of him. He's got to do some things from a special teams perspective, maybe, to be a backup linebacker active over some of the other guys.
"Rush linebacker, defensive end - depending on how much weight and size and strength he puts on - he'll be in that mix for sure next year, and I'll expect him to play a lot."
Mattison said he was pleased with how Kruger finished the season.
"I thought he really took great strides at the very end and showed a lot about his ability to be a positive football player by how he finished the season," Mattison said. "Even though he wasn't active in the [playoff] games, in his practice performance and attention to detail and improvement to technique, he really took huge steps."