BEREA, Ohio – A few days into his first training camp with the Cleveland Browns, a lot of what Paul Kruger is seeing and doing is new.
Barkevious Mingo and Jabaal Sheard know the feeling, too.
Look around the Browns practice fields at the first-time head coach, his new coaching staff, new decision makers watching intently from the sideline, new decorations bordering the fields and new, well, you get the idea.
Kruger, Mingo and Sheard fit right in. And how well they end up fitting their new roles as outside linebackers and lead pass rushers for the Browns’ new 3-4 defense ties directly into how things will go for all involved this season.
The Browns invested a bunch of money — $40 million over five years — into Kruger and are very deeply invested in Mingo, too, as the new regime’s first pick. That both essentially play the same position says a lot about what this regime values. Quentin Groves was added for his experience and relationship with new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and to help Mingo and Sheard transition into their new roles.
Kruger was a part-time player for most of his four years with the Baltimore Ravens. Sheard has previously been a hand-on-ground defensive end. Mingo was a blue-chip prospect because he ran right past a lot of college offensive tackles. Now, all are trying to find their way with the Browns — and help the Browns out of the basement in the AFC North.
Kruger sees that as possible, and in the early stages of camp he sees a defense that doesn’t have the reputation of the one he left last spring but one that does have talent.
“I think we’re right there with (the Ravens defense), honestly,” Kruger said. “I’m not just saying that. We have an extremely fast middle linebacking corps. Joe Haden and the other corners are covering extremely well right now, so I’m not exactly sure how exactly it would rank out.
“Every NFL team is full of talented guys. That’s just the nature of the (league). I had no doubt it would be the case here. It’s just putting people in the right positions, having everything gel together. Great teams can emerge at any time.”
Kruger and Sheard are playing outside linebacker with the first defensive unit. They’ve alternated sides, though Kruger has usually been on the left going against the right tackle and Sheard has been on the right, where he works against perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. Mingo and Groves have played on the second unit thus far.
With Kruger’s new setting comes a much larger paycheck and a much larger responsibility. He wasn’t a visible leader with the Ravens — the cameras always caught that guy wearing No. 52 doing the leading — but Kruger said he’s embracing the chance to play a more vocal, more important leadership role with his new team.
“Leadership is important, and I think it’s one of the reasons they brought me here,” Kruger said. “It’s about developing relationships and coming out here and working hard.
“I think I’ve been a leader my whole life, but it’s been in different capacities at different times. Baltimore was honestly different from a lot of places because we had a lot of leadership. We had so many guys that were hungry for wins, competitive and also had leadership qualities in their personalities.”
Kruger, 27, said he feels a little like an old man when he tells Mingo that the new CBA enacted in 2011 that limited hours and hitting and training is a blessing. But the work the Browns will do over the next month-plus will still be important, both on and off the field.
With the Ravens, Kruger was around lots of players with first-round talent and expectations like those that Mingo brings to his first NFL camp. He said he sees Mingo “doing the right things” and as being worthy of the hype, and he said he’ll talk to Mingo about understanding that succeeding in the NFL can take time.
Kruger recorded 9 of his 15.5 career sacks last season and had 2 sacks in the Super Bowl. He rode it all to a big payday — and another new start with a new, more public and more important role.
“The biggest thing I’d probably (tell Mingo) is just to be patient,” Kruger said. “You know you’re talented and you feel like you can come right in and do the things you’ve always done. For me, I wasn’t as ready as I felt I was right away. Everybody’s situation is different, but I was hungry to get out and play and just trying to soak it all in. When you have a veteran team, sometimes the young guy has to be patient.”