Since we’re talking about Free Agency, a quick review of the rules are in order:
1. If these free agents are such good players AND considering the relative cap flexibility and variety of tags teams can employ, then why are they free agents in the first place?
2. Considering the short shelf life of an NFL player, free agency is often a player’s last chance to land a big money contract – which naturally begs the question of how motivated the player actually is.
3. Oh, and to qualify for inclusion onto the All-Name team, the free agent has to be known by even the dimmest of football fans – and sportswriters. And bonus points for a player who everybody only recently figured out was “a guy.”
But seriously – no bias here.
Here are the first two installments of this year’s series – featuring two incredibly specific examples.
Alex_Smith and Mike Wallace
-Fits the physical prototype of a “3-4? linebacker.
-Also likely fits the physical prototype of whatever defense the Browns will play in 2014.
-Is strong against the run.
-Is a load as a pass rusher.
-Plays with a lot of energy and emotion.
-Drafted in the second round of the 2009 Draft.
-Admit it – before last December, you completely forgot this guy was even in the league.
-Could be the latest in a long line of former Ravens to flame out post-Baltimore.
-Can rush the passer, but relies mainly on strength and mismatches.
-Can get dominated by athletic offensive linemen.
-Free agent value surely inflated by Ravens’ Super Bowl run.
-Drafted in the second round of the 2009 Draft (five spots AFTER David Veikune).
So, let’s get the obvious arguments out of the way.
First, here’s a stat summary of Kruger’s career. Kruger spent the bulk of his first three seasons playing special teams and filling in behind Jarrett Johnson. Coming out of college, Kruger was known more for his pass rushing skills as a defensive end and struggled to find a role in the Ravens’ “multi-front” defense.
And before your mind goes there, let’s not bring up that painful discussion again.
Second, it took the free agent departure of Johnson – a solid linebacker – to San Diego to allow Kruger to assume a starting role. Or, if you assume the perspective that the Ravens consistently draft defensive end/linebackers, Kruger was more experienced and/or healthier than Sergio Kindle and Courtney Upshaw. More on this in a moment – as Kruger finds himself in a unique group of Ravens’ players.
Of course, Kruger made his proverbial money during the Ravens’ surprise run through the playoffs last month. Playing opposite Terrell Suggs, Kruger book ended his postseason by dominating against the Colts and then making some key plays in the Ravens’ Super Bowl win over the 49ers. Along the way, Kruger elevated his profile as a rising star – showing an energetic blend of strength and hustle.
In terms of skills, Kruger is a physical player that is capable in both pass rushing and run defense. At least if you adhere to the traditional “edge setting” role of a run defender, Kruger would be an asset for a Browns’ defense that has struggled for two decades against the run. Kruger holds up well against most opposing tackles and is capable of dominating against tight ends and lesser tackles.
As far as pass rushing, Kruger is not the most sophisticated of rushers – relying more on raw strength, constant movement and pure hustle. During the regular season, Kruger’s sack totals were built by collecting “coverage sacks” – typically occurring on plays in which an opposing tackle had to block for five seconds or longer. Still, a sack is a sack and Kruger had to be accounted for.
And like any strong pass rusher, Kruger’s play improved upon the return of Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs. Of Kruger’s 9 regular season sacks, 7.5 occurred once Suggs returned from a torn Achilles’ tendon. Of course, this can be a subjective argument even with the statistical evidence, as Jabaal Sheard’s effort was outstanding in 2012, but his overall numbers suffered because the Browns could only throw out aging veterans to play across from him.
So, the logical question then becomes: Just how good is Kruger? and/or How much of Kruger’s success stems from playing in Baltimore?
Before answering, it’s worth remembering that these questions are framed within the context of NFL free agency – an event that hyper-inflates the value of most players.
Kruger is certainly talented and no doubt fits the mold of a versatile defender. In the simplest terms, he’s a 3-4 outside linebacker, but could also play a variety of roles, including defensive end and short yardage run stopper. He fits the rare criteria of being a young free agent and at least based on his career arc, Kruger definitely has shown that he has potential to keep improving.
And yes, Kruger could be an ideal fit to play across from Jabaal Sheard in the Browns’ defense.
But yet again – there’s an extraordinarily simple, yet essential question that begs to be asked:
If Kruger is so good, why didn’t the Ravens already sign him?
Similar to Mike Wallace and the Steelers, it’s possible that the Ravens just ran out of cap room. Considering the massive money owed to veterans Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs and the skyrocketing worth of quarterback Joe Flacco, Kruger could be viewed as a luxury to the Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome. Certainly, the defending champs have their priorities and Newsome has always conducted business with an eye towards the future.
Newsome’s amazingly consistent run as Ravens’ boss is certainly due to the team’s expertise in drafting quality players. However, in terms of free agency, it’s worth pointing out that Newsome also has a skilled touch in knowing when to let a player go. Much in the way Kruger replaced Johnson, it won’t be a dramatic transition for another player to take over Kruger’s spot next year.
Or, for more evidence – have a look at the players that Newsome has not re-signed over the years.
On the surface, this is a very impressive list of defensive talent. All are players who greatly contributed to the success of the Ravens over the past decade, yet when you consider their post-Baltimore careers – none have made a major impact on their “second” team.
At least to the point of being worth an expensive free agent contract.
Within this context, the question is whether Kruger is an exception or just the latest in a long line of former Ravens. To add a quality player like Kruger is one thing, but to invest serious free agent money is quite another. Although it’s an unfair criteria, Kruger could be little more than a complementary player on a defense that needs game changers.
Kruger is a talented player that can now boast championship experience. And certainly there is an allure for the Browns to pull away a player from a hated rival. However, there is also a history of teams doing this exact thing and not getting the results they paid for. In Kruger’s case, his meteoric rise coincides with entry into free agency, which likely suits Newsome just fine.