It's crazy to think that three months ago, the whispers that Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger was officially a bust had almost become a collective shout amongst the fan base. Kruger, a second-round draft pick in 2009, got off to a sluggish start, in part due to a back injury that forced him to miss a game, and had lost his spot in the starting lineup. After being jerked around from position to position, Kruger had flashed pass-rush potential in 2011, but he had just 1.5 sacks in the first half of the season. Suddenly, something clicked for Kruger, who became the pass-rushing threat that the Ravens have desperately needed. He sacked Carson Palmer twice in a blowout win over the Oakland Raiders. He dropped Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich a week later. Then San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. He racked up sacks in five straight games for 6.5 in that five-game span. He finished the regular season with a team-high nine sacks after sacking Andy Dalton in the season-ending loss against the Cincinnati Bengals. I don't know exactly when and what triggered Kruger's transformation from bust to unblockable. Maybe he was finally healthy. Maybe the return of Terrell Suggs freed him up. Maybe a young player was finally given an opportunity to get comfortable at one position. But the Indianapolis Colts had no answer for Kruger in Sunday's 24-9 win, and his remarkable individual performance was nearly enough to outshine the triumphant return of linebacker Ray Lewis. Kruger recorded 2.5 sacks and his strip-sack of Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck tilted the momentum back to the Baltimore side in the first quarter. He isn't letting it show out on the field, but his pending free agency is weighing on his mind. And how could it not, at least a little bit? The 26-year-old is playing the best football of his career, and it couldn't have happened at a better time. NFL teams covet pass rushers more than anything besides premier quarterbacks, and thanks to his strong second half and his performance in the spotlight Sunday, he figures to be one of the most coveted on the open market, if the Ravens are unable to re-sign him before then. "It's hard not to," he told me Thursday when I asked him if he thinks about his uncertain future. "I want to finish strong. Focus on each game at the time. That's my mindset. But of course I do think about it. I'm anxious to figure out things. I'm excited about it. At the same time, I'm really focused on what we've got to do. Things get better the better you play, and you are doing your best to get a spot somewhere." We'll see if that spot ends up being back in Baltimore. But either way, Kruger, who has made a loud rebuttal to the sector of the fan base that had labeled him a rare Ravens draft bust, is about to get paid.
Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd Fox