The Ravens lost an ironman and a fan favorite when outside linebacker Jarret Johnson signed a four-year, $19-million deal with the San Diego Chargers last month. Since then, head coach John Harbaugh has twice hyped up Paul Kruger, who in his fourth season is the favorite to land the starting spot that belonged to Johnson.
At Wednesday's pre-draft luncheon, Harbaugh said Kruger -- who was active for every game last season and excelled as a part-time player, recording a career-high 5.5 sacks -- is ready to become an every-down player.
"We talked about having a chance to go back and watch every one of his reps," said Harbaugh, who also praised Kruger at a news conference a couple of weeks ago. "He's going to have to compete like everybody else, and someone may get drafted that he's going to have to do battle against. Albert McClellan will be in the mix, and others potentially, but I'd be surprised if he doesn't rise to the occasion and have a heck of a year."
Kruger, 26, was the team's second-round draft pick in 2009. He was a reserve linebacker in his rookie year. The Ravens bulked him up in 2010 and moved him inside to defensive end. Last offseason, he slimmed down for a switch back to outside linebacker. Kruger looked to be more comfortable and his production backed the eye test up. His sack total was third-highest on the team and he added a sack in the AFC championship game.
Johnson was asked to do a lot of things, not just rushing the quarterback. He was tough against the run and also dropped into coverage at times. It's unclear how Kruger's new responsibilities would differ from Johnson's. That, of course, is assuming Kruger claims the starting gig, which Harbaugh said isn't a formality.
There is a solid chance the Ravens will draft an outside linebacker to add depth and competition. The list of first-round prospects who draft analysts feel could fit the 3-4 edge linebacker mold includes South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, Clemson's Andre Branch, Southern California's Nick Perry, and Alabama's Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower. The Ravens said Wednesday that there are linebacker prospects they like in each round.
Harbaugh also mentioned McClellan as competition for Kruger.
McClellan, 25, earned a spot on the 53-man roster in last year's training camp. He was active for all 16 games last season, and though he mostly played on special teams, he was a surprise starter at inside linebacker and made four tackles when Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe sat out the team's win on Thanksgiving. At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, McClellan may be better suited to play on the outside, but his versatility is clearly an asset.
And before you ask, Sergio Kindle was not mentioned when Harbaugh spoke about the candidates to replace Johnson. But Harbaugh and G.M. Ozzie Newsome both spoke about Kindle at Wednesday's news conference.
"We'll have him here starting on April 16. We'll have a full offseason. I think we know what some of the issues are, and we will attack those issues. It'll be interesting to see," Newsome said before giving way to Harbaugh.
"In all fairness, it's probably unprecedented what he has had to face [with] that kind of an injury," Harbaugh said of Kindle, who missed the 2010 season with a fractured skull. "He's really unusual. Like our doctors tell us all the time, we're treading in unknown territory. But, he's made great progress. The year of practice really helped him. He's going to get every opportunity, and we're going to coach him like crazy, and we're going to make it our mission to get him on the field and get him playing, because he has talent and he wants to do well."
Kindle isn't a lock to make the 53-man roster in 2012, but the Ravens aren't going to close the book on the 2010 second-round draft pick before they absolutely have to. Team officials have stated that they want to boost their pass rush this season and Kindle likely still has the physical tools and athleticism to be a factor. If they can "coach him like crazy" as Harbaugh said, there is a chance Kindle might contribute as a situational player.
But they probably won't be able to count on him to play every down, but that's okay if Kruger lives up to their high expectations. Johnson's toughness will be missed, but Kruger is tough, too (remember, this guy survived a stabbing in college). Now can he hold up against the run on first and second down? We'll find that out this summer, but the Ravens are likely relying on Kruger to be a starter and maybe an every-down player in 2012.