Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger is just a fourth-year NFL player, but when you ask about his first three years, he sounds like someone who has been around a lot longer.
Its been a long road," he said Tuesday. Ive moved to different positions. Theres been a lot of talent and older vets who have been here (at his positions), so my role just wasnt as clear as every player wants it to be. A lot of guys have to deal with that. The last three years have been kind of a grind for me, just (trying to) find a way to be effective and be part of the team.
A year ago, after two seasons in Baltimore, his career had virtually no traction. When the lockout was settled, he came to training camp believing he would be an interior lineman, a position he had played without distinction in 2010 after putting on 20 pounds for the role.
But upon arriving at camp, Kruger, a second-round pick in 2009, found out the coaches were moving him back to outside linebacker, his natural position. He wound up having a strong season, finishing third on the team in sacks with 5.5, and now, as the 2012 season approaches, he is taking yet another step as a likely member of the starting lineup.
This year (his role) seems more clear. Its exciting, Kruger said.
The tough part of his assignment is that all eyes are on him with Terrell Suggs out indefinitely with an Achilles injury. Although Kruger technically is replacing the Ravens other departed linebacker, Jerret Johnson, who signed with the Chargers as a free agent, he and rookie Courtney Upshaw are widely seen as having to replace Suggs.
The biggest thing with Paul right now is the expectations being placed on him, Ravens linebacker coach Ted Monachino said.
But its a story line Kruger doesnt buy.
Ive said this many times. Youre talking about the best defensive player in the league (in Suggs), Kruger said. Its pretty much impossible to replace a guy like that. We just need to get him healthy and get him back. As for me, its just about me being the best player I can be in filling that role. Im pretty excited about it.
Of course, moving from a situational pass rusher to a three-down linebacker means he needs to be able to play the running game and cover receivers as well as pressure quarterbacks.
We ask our guys to do all three (things)," Monachino said. Having played primarily as s rusher until now, hes got a bit of a learning curve, but hes getting better every day.
Kruger said, Once I put everything together, I think I can be effective. Its really important just for this team and myself. Everyone is out here fighting. We want to be a great team this year. So Im busting my tail to make plays and be a guy people can rely on.
Thats the next step for Kruger, and its a big one.
Everyone has their opportunity in life, and this is his, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. I think hell do well with it.
Center Matt Birk sat out practice for a second straight day. Harbaugh explained that Birk, 36, is at the stage in his career where he probably is going to practice less than hes not going to practice.
Harbaugh had praise for linebacker Albert McClellan, who is fighting for a backup spot, and running back Bobby Rainey, an undrafted rookie from Western Kentucky who rushed for more than 4,500 yards in college.
Monachino said linebacker Sergio Kindle has made a quantum leap in his third season in terms of his mental approach to practice and to film study and to just simply being a pro.