CLEVELAND — The Cleveland Browns came fast out of the free-agency gate Tuesday, agreeing to a five-year deal with linebacker/defensive end Paul Kruger less than an hour after teams could talk contract with players.
The signing upgrades the defense, and it provides more pass rush help for a unit in transition.
Kruger goes from a Super Bowl champion that won 14 games a year ago to one that has 14 wins total in the past three seasons.
In free agency, often it’s money that matters.
Kruger’s ability to pick his team was a matter of fortuitous timing. He’s not a great player, but he’s a good player who could get better. And he’s a rich player after agreeing to a $40 million, five-year deal. He happened to hit the market at a time when the Ravens were struggling against the salary cap and the Browns had plenty of room with a need to help the defense.
He had nine sacks last season, and he added another 4 1/2 in the playoffs.
Many of those came after Terrell Suggs returned from an Achilles tendon injury to the other side of the defense. With Suggs out, Kruger had 1 1/2 sacks in five games. With Suggs in, Kruger had 12 sacks in 15 games, counting the playoffs.
The Browns and CEO Joe Banner are banking that, at 27, Kruger’s best years are ahead of him. He fits the Banner model of a player who can solve a problem for several years.
Kruger went to Utah and spent two years on a Church mission in Kansas City before he joined the Ravens in 2009. In four seasons, he has six starts (five in 2012) — mainly because he’s considered a pass rusher and not a run defender.
The Browns need versatility in their new “hybrid 3-4” alignment, and Kruger provides some. He can line up with his hand down at end or stand up at linebacker. He also can move around and rush from different spots.
If Jabaal Sheard can make the switch from end to linebacker, the Browns would have two outside players to pressure the passer. And they could add another with the sixth pick in the NFL Draft.
Kruger’s addition gets the Jimmy Haslam era off to a fast start. The past two years, fans were frustrated at the team’s inaction, but owner Haslam and Banner let little time pass on the first day of free agency before adding an impact player on defense.