CLEVELAND — Paul Kruger rushed his way to a Super Bowl win, and on to a huge payday.
Baltimore’s sacks leader last season agreed to terms Tuesday on a contract with the Cleveland Browns, who with their first move in free agency added a proven pass rusher and weakened the defending NFL champions.
Kruger, a linebacker, will sign a five-year deal with the Browns, a person familiar with the agreement told The Associated Press. The 27-year-old Kruger is expected to finalize the deal and be introduced in the next few days, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the signing has not yet been officially announced by the Browns.
ESPN first reported Kruger’s deal, which is worth around $40 million.
Entering free agency with over $47 million in salary-cap space, Browns CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi wasted little time landing Kruger, considered one of the top outside rushers in this year’s free-agent class. He had 13½ sacks last season — 4½ in the playoffs — and will strengthen a young Cleveland defense transitioning from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 multi-front formation under new coordinator Ray Horton.
Kruger’s signing supports new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s pledge to turn around a franchise that has lost at least 11 games in each of the past five seasons and made the playoffs once since 1999. And now that they’ve addressed one of their biggest needs, the Browns may target a tight end, cornerback and perhaps a quarterback in free agency to bring in as competition for Brandon Weeden.
During the three-day negotiating window, the club reportedly talked to agents for players at all three positions, but with teams releasing players in the early hours of free agency, the market has already changed.
It’s not known if the Browns have had any contact with the representatives for Pro Bowl kicker Phil Dawson or return specialist Josh Cribbs, the club’s two longest tenured players. Dawson, who has spent 14 seasons with Cleveland, left in December thinking his days with the Browns were over. Cribbs has reportedly drawn interest from several teams including the Arizona Cardinals.
Kruger had a breakout season for the Ravens in 2012.
After getting nine sacks during the regular season, he was a disruptive force in the postseason and twice sacked San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl as Baltimore held off the 49ers to win the title. It was a fitting finish for the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder, who started a career-high five games after starting just one in his first three NFL seasons.
Drafted in the second round (No. 57 overall) in 2009 from Utah, Kruger, who was a quarterback in high school, was slow to develop and initially found it difficult to get playing time on a star-studded Ravens team with talented linebackers and pass rushers. However, with linebacker Terrell Suggs sidelined last season with a torn Achilles tendon, Kruger got a chance to play more and became the team’s most efficient rusher.
He made $615,000 last season, the final one of his original deal with Baltimore.
In getting Kruger, the Browns are not only hoping to bolster their defense but take another piece away from the Ravens, who are undergoing a massive makeover after signing quarterback Joe Flacco to a new contract. Baltimore traded wide receiver Anquan Boldin to San Francisco, and the AFC North champs also reportedly lost inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbee in free agency to Miami. Perennial Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed could be next.
Kruger recorded 69 tackles and 15½ sacks in 51 games for the Ravens. He joined them with a tough-guy reputation after he survived being stabbed by a gang member in Utah while hosting his younger brother on a recruiting visit. Kruger suffered a collapsed lung and punctured artery in the attack.
He overcame a back injury last season, when he had just 1½ sacks in Baltimore’s first seven games. But Kruger picked it up and had sacks in five straight games — tying the franchise record — beginning with two against Oakland Nov. 11.