Fair or not, outside linebackers in an NFL 3-4 defense are judged by their sack numbers. Paul Kruger posted 4.5 in 2013 for the Cleveland Browns.
When Mike Pettine was asked to describe what he saw from Kruger on film last season, the head coach said, in part: "He had some plays I'm sure he'd rather take back."
Kruger knows this. So this offseason, he looked in the mirror and acknowledged he had to return to his old form.
Nearly every day during in the spring, Kruger worked on his explosion, or what he calls his "get-off." Over and over and over again, he would line up in his pass-rushing technique, dig his foot into the grass and push off, attacking a would-be quarterback.
There's being in athletic shape. And then there's being in football shape. Kruger feels like this different type of training put him ahead of the game before the Browns threw on the shoulder pads at training camp.
"If you can affect the quarterback in this league, you're going to be a special guy," said Kruger.
The 28-year-old Kruger was that special guy in Baltimore in 2012, posting nine sacks in a pure pass rusher role.
And that's why Kruger is so antsy to get the season started. Kruger told reporters on Tuesday that the concepts and schematics of Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil's defense are very comparable to the Ravens – one he helped win a Super Bowl ring in.
This system is asking less things of Kruger. He won't be chasing tight ends regularly. He won't be disguised as a decoy in zone coverage. It's back to the basics: getting into the backfield.
"He's a guy we think can be one of the elite edge linebackers in this league and can set the edge in the run games," said Pettine. "He's very aggressive, very violent with his hands."
Kruger speaks almost in awe of Pettine and O'Neil and their forecasts of certain football situations. The defensive-minded coaches seem to have a play call for any possible outcome. Say it's second-and-12 early in the first quarter with a four wide receiver set. Kruger doesn't even have to question whether or not the right play will be dialed up.
"They have something for every situation possible," Kruger said. "They definitely have mastered this scheme. We're just trying our best to learn it and make it our own."
Kruger can partially thank Barkevious Mingo for this "back to the basics" approach the Browns are taking. Because of Mingo's skills athletically, Cleveland is taking advantage of using the second-year player more in coverage and using him as a moving piece in the system.
"Mingo's got some traits that nobody really on the field does," said Kruger.
Unlike at quarterback or running back, figuring out the rotation at outside linebacker is a joy for the coaching staff to decide upon.
Just this week the Browns have actually installed a package with Kruger, Mingo and Jabaal Sheard all on the field at once. During an interview, Sheard hinted if the trio is playing up to their potential, all three could be regulars together during third down blitzing situations.
After explaining the work Kruger is putting in, yet again it all boils down to production.
"I have a goal number in mind," said Kruger about increasing his sack total. "It's not really something I want to get into. I have some lofty goals. I'm excited for this year. For me it's just about being a guy that can be counted on, in all facets of the defense."
That's how you become a "special guy."