In an age where first and second-round draft picks are expected to make an instant impact, some might call Paul Kruger a bust.
Doing so would be a mistake.
Yes, the Ravens 2009 second-round pick has started just one game in his two seasons in the NFL. Yes, there have been a couple stretches where he's been a gameday inactive for a few weeks in a row, including at the start of this season when he spent the first three games on the sidelines and out of uniform. Yes, he's made just 13 tackles in 14 career games played.
But, after making a move from outside linebacker to defensive end this offseason and spending the last several months trying to learn the fundamentals of a new position, Kruger has been coming on strong lately. He recorded his first career NFL sack last week against the Panthers, and the Ravens' coaches have been very pleased with the progress he's made.
"Paul's done a good job," head coach John Harbaugh said. "He's worked hard. I'm excited about it. He's got to work on technique and fundamentals - the little things from a technique standpoint - because he's already got the motor. He's got good athleticism. But, if he can become a real great technique player - which he's made huge strides on this year - he can be, I think, a real special player."
Kruger admits that it's nice to hear such complimentary reviews from the Ravens coaches. There were times last season where it appeared he had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff because of his inability to pick up the special teams aspects of the game, and he was unable to make much of an impact playing behind Terrell Suggs at the rush linebacker spot.
He's slowly making progress in his new role as a down defensive lineman, however, and is happy that his progress is getting noticed.
"I think everybody develops a lot in their first year, and I know I experienced that a lot, so I'm happy that they say [I'm improving] because that shows me that what I feel is consistent with what they've seen," Kruger said. "I'm excited about it, and I want to keep going. I want to make a lot more strides.
"I have a lot to improve on in a lot of different areas, and I'm on the best team to do that. I see veterans that have been doing it for 10-plus years, so I'm real excited for the upcoming future."
One thing that makes Kruger valuable to the Ravens' defense is his versatility. He gained 25 pounds this offseason in his move to defensive end, and while he's lost some of that weight during the season, he is big and strong enough to play two spots: behind Cory Redding on the inside and behind Suggs outside.
The main goal with the weight gain was obviously to get Kruger to a size where he could take on offensive linemen in the trenches and become more of a force in the run game. But Harbaugh says that the increased bulk has also forced the Utah product to improve his fundamentals.
"I think it paid off in the sense that it put him down inside during training camp and that forced him to play better technique," Harbaugh said. "He had to play the run with technique. He had to learn how to come off the ball with a flat back, get his hands inside, get his face in there and be a stout player. And that has made him a better pass rusher and it has made him a better run player."
Going forward, Harbaugh says, the finer points will be key with Kruger. It's tougher to work on the fundamentals during the season when the bulk of practice time is spent gameplanning for the next opponent, but that doesn't stop Kruger from spending extra time trying to improve.
"I work on a few things before and after practice as far as pass rush stuff with [outside linebackers coach Ted] Monchino and [defensive line coach Clarence] Brooks," Kruger said. "A lot of it has just been little things that everybody does but that are good to improve on. Your get-offs, your hands, just little stuff."
A lot of work is still left to be done, but for now, Kruger will enjoy the chance he's getting, as well as that first career sack.
"It feels good to get on the board," Kruger said. "I'm hoping to have a lot more."