(One of a series of articles exploring the status of individual players on the Ravens as the 2012 season approaches.)
You could argue that no player on the Ravens is under more pressure in 2012 than Paul Kruger. Maybe Joe Flacco, but that's about it.
Crucial questions abound as Kruger, a fourth-year linebacker, becomes a starter for the first time in the wake of Jarret Johnsons departure for San Diego and Terrell Suggs Achilles injury.
Has Kruger really developed into a three-down defender who can set the edge of a run defense as well as rush the passer?Can he become enough of a presence in the pass rush to held hold the levees until Suggs returns?
A year ago, the Ravens wondered if Kruger even had a future in Baltimore. He had struggled to gain traction in his first two seasons after joining the team as a second-round pick in 2009. But he separated himself from the dreaded B-word (bust) in 2011 with a breakout performance that included 5.5 sacks in a specialist role.
When a starting job opened up ahead of him in March after Johnsons departure, Ravens coach John Harbaugh was as curious as anyone to know if Kruger really was ready to step up. Harbaugh said he went back and looked at the tape of every play of Krugers 2011 season.
Id be surprised if he doesnt rise to the occasion and have a heck of a year, Harbaugh said.
Asked directly if Kruger was ready to start, the coach said, He really is.
That was before Suggs went down in late April, adding to the pressure on Kruger. The Ravens need him to do more than just perform adequately as a first-year starter in 2012; they need him to make plays.
He looked solid as he ran with the No. 1 defense throughout the spring season of OTAs and minicamps, but the real test begins with training camp later this month and then the opening of the regular season in September.
Lets be clear: Im not Terrell Suggs. Were different players, Kruger said this spring. He was the best defensive player in the entire NFL last season. Im going to be the best I can be and I'll be working as hard as I can to fill the position.