OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Paul Kruger is about to get paid. And he knows it.
It's not something the Baltimore Ravens' emerging pass rusher is focused on, but he would be lying if he said the prospect of his current play, and what it might mean for his future, didn't occasionally cross his mind. After a roller-coaster NFL career -- second-round pick, scout-team guy, seeming bust in the making, future free-agent star -- Kruger is well aware that the combination of shining on the national stage and an expiring rookie contract could put him in position for a hefty payday.
And in a locker-room culture founded on clichés, Kruger is refreshingly not pretending that the financial component doesn't matter. We all know players risk their health and futures every time they don a helmet and pads. So while Kruger certainly compartmentalizes the business of the sport from the game he loves, he knows the two are intimately intertwined, especially with his Ravens in the Super Bowl and all eyes across the league on them and their rising young players this postseason.
"There is no reason to put it aside," Kruger said. "You can use it as motivation. We are all playing this game for money -- it's our jobs -- and while it's not something you focus on, it's not something you have to stay away from either. I'm not thinking about the contract all the time, but there are rewards for playing this game, and the better you perform, the better the rewards."
Kruger, who had nine sacks this season despite not having a healthy Terrell Suggs opposite him, and had a 2½-sack game in the playoffs, is just one of Baltimore's key young starters on defense in line for a huge raise. Corner Cary Williams has been handed brutally difficult assignments all season and into the playoffs, meeting the challenge with top corner Lardarius Webb lost for the season back in September. Inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe has become the new lifeblood of the unit, having a monster season with Ray Lewis injured for much of the year, and has become the heir apparent to the retiring Hall of Famer.
|More 2013 Super Bowl coverage|
|Picks and odds|
The situation isn't quite the same for the 49ers, who have plenty of young studs on their own stout defense, but most are locked up for years to come. Safety Dashon Goldson is playing on the franchise tag and will get free-agent action, and impending free agent Isaac Sopoaga is a critical part of their rotation along the defensive line, but guys like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman already have received their big extensions.
For some of these young Ravens, the exposure could prove invaluable and richly rewarding. The Super Bowl has been very, very good to some impending free agents over the years, perhaps none more than Dallas defensive back Larry Brown, who went from journeyman to wealthy man over the course of three glorious Super Bowl hours.
Kruger, candidly, admits the mistakes of his youth. He struggled to learn a complex defensive system, and how he fit in, and had difficulty meeting rigorous demands, whether to beef up or slim down. He was a tweener as an outside linebacker/rush end, a situational player at best who flashed occasionally but largely sputtered his first few years in the league after being drafted out of Utah in 2009.
Those difficulties led general manager Ozzie Newsome this week to say: "He has decided to become a good player," alluding to Kruger's improved work ethic and dedication recently. Kruger didn't shy away from that assessment, admitting he got caught up in the nightlife and lifestyle of being an NFL player before he had the chops to back it up. Now he's much more of a weight-room fixture and homebody.
"I got caught up in it enough to where it affected my game," he said.
Kruger burned through a few agents as well, and during the playoffs, with his career hitting new heights, he made another change, this time signing with Athlete's First, one of the most powerful agencies in the NFL. League sources expect Kruger to seek between $8 million and $9 million a year on the open market. Given Baltimore's cap situation, and with high draft pick Courtney Upshaw waiting in the wings, that could well prove too expensive for them.
It's rare that talented pass rushers hit the market in their mid-20s (Kruger turns 27 next month) and the demand for him will be very real.
The Ravens will make Ellerbe an offseason focal point, sources said, viewing him as essential with Lewis departing and because of recent, unsuccessful attempts to draft other middle linebackers like Tavares Gooden and Jameel McClain. Ellerbe flashes all over the field and has a nose for the ball, making him a natural playmaker. He embodies what Ravens defense is all about, and though there have been no real contract talks through the season, according to sources, they're likely to commence shortly. Likely using the franchise tag on quarterback Joe Flacco also limits Baltimore's ability to retain all of its young defenders as well.
Ellerbe, singed as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia in 2009, likely will come cheaper, given that linebackers languished on the open market a year ago (as did running backs), and he said he has no idea what kind of financial compensation is ahead.
"You can't control how much money you get," Ellerbe said. "That's up to the business people and what the market is at your position. It's not something you can really think about too much, because it's not in your control."
Williams began to stand out last season, showing an ability to man-up on top wideouts when need be. With Webb hurt and 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith, another corner, injured and struggling, Williams was thrust into the primary role this season and has helped to contain the outrageous passing attacks of the Colts, Broncos and Patriots in the postseason.
The Ravens offered Williams a three-year, $15 million deal early this season, according to sources, which he promptly turned down. Sources said Williams could seek upwards of $8 million a season. It was a bold move for a player who was originally drafted in the seventh round in 2008 by the Titans out of tiny Division II Washburn University.
"I don't consider myself a small-school guy anymore," Williams said. "I've had to take on all the big guys."
Williams was signed by the Ravens off Tennessee's practice squad in 2009, and, at 28, is peaking at the right time. Obviously, he has no regrets about playing things out and awaiting free agency, though like Ellerbe and Kruger, expressed a strong desire to stay in Baltimore if possible.
"I looked at it like I put it in God's hands," Williams said of turning down the contract offer, "and I felt like all the hard work and preparation would pay off. I felt like if I kept doing what I was doing, then the success would be there for me. ... I wasn't really looking at it as gambling on myself, I felt like I was gambling on God."
Add these three players to the Flacco situation, and the fact that future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, a huge fan favorite, is a free agent as well, and Newsome won't have too much time to savor another Lombardi Trophy should the Ravens win Sunday.
"I already can look down the stream," Newsome said. "I know what the contract situation is, and No. 1, I know what our salary cap is, and I can look and say and know that we are not going to be able to retain some players, so that's the reason why we go draft players and they sit around for two years and you all wonder why [is] he not playing. Oh, he will play at some point. So, I don't have to worry. I worry about winning today, but I've got to also worry about winning tomorrow, and I've got to be able to balance those books every year."
It could be that this young defensive core is playing its last game together. Kruger, ever the realist, admits as much, too, though he hopes Newsome and ownership are able to execute the requisite cap and budgetary gymnastics to make it all fit back together in 2013.
"I wish I knew," Kruger said of the ability to keep it together. "I am sure they're going to have some tough decisions to make, and it's been my experience that every year there will be changes and not everyone is going to stay. My philosophy is just play as well as you can, and then see where it takes you."