In his first four seasons in the NFL, Paul Kruger steadily developed into a productive pass rusher with the Ravens. He was a part of four Ravens playoff teams and a big part of last season's Super Bowl team.
While he was here, twice a year he got a glimpse of the Cleveland Browns, a downtrodden franchise that has lost 10 straight games to the Ravens and hasn't made the playoffs since 2002.
Kruger signed with the Browns in the offseason. Part of the allure, besides the lucrative contract the Browns dangled to acquire his services, was an opportunity to help turn a franchise around.
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"It was important to be a part of something that I could have an influence on," Kruger said on a conference call Wednesday. "So many people talk about what the Browns have done in the past. To me, it's irrelevant. The past is the past. This is a new team. I feel really good about or defense and our team and all that we have doing on right now."
The Browns are counting on Kruger to successfully rush the passer and secure the edge against the run. But they are also hoping that the 27-year-old outside linebacker will become a leader for a young team after learning what it takes to win from Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said Wednesday that he has liked what he has seen so far.
The Browns lost, 23-10, in their season opener against the Miami Dolphins, but Kruger recorded a sack in his first game in Cleveland and helped his new defense turn in a strong performance.
Now he has turned his focus to his old team, who host the Browns in Sunday's home opener.
"It's going to be a little different," Kruger said. "I was there for four years and have so many friends and people over there that I still talk to. It's going to be different for sure, but I've made this place a new home and I am really loving it here."
Kruger was a second-round draft pick of the Ravens in 2009. He started seven games for the Ravens in four seasons and totaled 69 tackles and 15.5 sacks. He didn't emerge as a regular contributor until last season, when he played an integral role in the team's Super Bowl run.
After recording 1.5 sacks through the team's first eight games, Kruger had 7.5 in the second half of the regular season. He added 4.5 sacks in the playoffs, including two sacks in the Super Bowl.
All the while, Kruger knew that he was about to cash in after performing well in a contract year.
"I was pretty focused on what we were doing, focused on winning games and playing well," Kruger said. "I obviously knew it was the last year of my contract, so something was going to happen. But whether I was going to stay or go? I really had no idea."
Kruger said it quickly became clear after the Super Bowl that he wouldn't return to the Ravens. So on March 12, the first day of free agency, he and the Browns agreed to terms on a five-year deal worth $40 million, one of the biggest free-agent contracts handed out this offseason.
"I'm really happy with the outcome," Kruger said. "[There is] no looking back, and here we are."
There appear to be no hard feelings between Kruger and his former team. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said he is looking forward to chatting with Kruger on the field before Sunday's game.
"We had a very strong relationship," Harbaugh said. "So it will be good to see him out there. But come Sunday, he will be on the other side and I'm sure he feels the same way."
Before kickoff, the Super Bowl banners will be unveiled and the champs will be celebrated, Kruger included.
"It will let guys like Paul Kruger know that you were a part of something special," Ravens running back Ray Rice said.
It will be one final moment with his former teammates, one that Kruger admits could be a distraction. But he is a member of the Browns now, and he hopes to use his memories and his experiences from his four years in Baltimore to help his new team grow into champions, too.
"It's something that I'll always carry and look back [upon]," Kruger said. "I was able to be a part of some great teams. Obviously, the Super Bowl last year was something I'll never forget. It's something that I'll always be able to fall back on and use that experience to build and grow."