Reporters long familiar with the Patriots' ways could not believe what they were hearing. Some of what Kraft said has applications to the NFC West with regard to the franchise tag, the salary cap and how teams value players.
Kraft, addressing what he called misconceptions about the team's efforts to re-sign Welker, concluded that the Patriots and Welker both lost when the receiver signed with Denver. He blamed Welker's agents for miscalculating the market. He used the word "bogus" when told agent David Dunn had said the Patriots never made an offer. He questioned whether Welker would last more than one year with the Broncos. And he called the Patriots' offer superior to the one Welker signed with Denver.
The comments provided a window into the emotional side of NFL franchise ownership. Kraft was ticked off about losing Welker. He was ticked off about how the Patriots' handling of the situation had been portrayed. He wasn't going to take it anymore, and he went off.
I've singled out a few of his comments for application to the NFC West.
Kraft: "For a couple years, we tried to get a long-term deal done with him. We couldn’t do a deal and we wound up franchising him at a very high number [$9.5 million]. In retrospect, I wish we could have wrapped that into an arrangement where it was part of a longer-term deal. But I really believe in this case, his agents misrepresented, in their mind, what his market value was."
NFC West application: The Patriots were the ones who set unrealistic expectations for Welker when they used the franchise tag to keep him off the market. Their decision to franchise Welker set his value at $9.5 million per season even though New England did not value him at that level over the course of a long-term deal. We've seen this happen in the NFC West with Karlos Dansby, Dashon Goldson, Oshiomogho Atogwe and other franchise players. In their case as in Welker's case, the franchise tag served its purpose in the short term while complicating efforts to strike a long-term deal.
Kraft: "When you come right down to the bottom line, he accepted a deal in Denver which is less money than what we offered him. In fact, he has a one-year deal in Denver for $6 million. Our last offer, before we would have even gone up and before we thought we were going into free agency, was a $10 million offer with incentives that would have earned him another $6 million if he performed the way he had the previous two years. But in Denver, he’s going to count $4 million against the cap this coming year and $8 million the second year. There is no guarantee that he plays the second year there. He will get $6 million the first year. Our deal, he would have gotten $8 million the first year."
NFC West application: Such candor is refreshing because it encourages smarter analysis of the contracts we hear misrepresented in some initial reports. We learned recently that the reported two-year, $15 million deal between Cliff Avril and the Seattle Seahawks was actually for $13 million, with $7 million of that in the second year. It could become a one-year deal for $6 million with a $2.25 million cap penalty in 2014 if Seattle releases him after one season. Next, we'll want to see the real numbers on the reported four-year, $36 million deal for St. Louis Rams tackle Jake Long.
Kraft: "Wes Welker, just to be very clear, was our first choice to be with the team. When free agency came, and his agents kept on insisting on a very high number that was beyond our number, we had to go work alternatives. Our second alternative was Danny Amendola. He had offers from other teams. So we made a judgment that Wes, unfortunately, probably wouldn’t be with us. We made this commitment to Amendola."
NFC West application: Amendola is getting $10 million in guaranteed money from the Patriots, so he's coming out just fine financially. Still, the Welker fallout in New England creates a potentially tricky situation for Amendola, who left the Rams for New England on a five-year contract. Welker was beloved not only by Patriots fans, but also by two Boston icons in Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady. Amendola will have to perform at an exceedingly high level to make this deal work from an emotional Patriots perspective.
Kraft: "Let me tell you what’s happened in the NFL this year. The top 25 players have received $700 million. How many Pro Bowls do any of you think, cumulatively, those 25 players have gone to? Anyone have a guess? Six. So cumulatively, the players that got $700 [million] -– 25 players –- so that tells you that the trend is going to signing young, up-and-coming players. There were 52 starters –- and a starter is someone who plays more than eight games -- who have been cut this year, and 41 of them are over 30 years old. I don’t think this has ever happened the same way in the league."
NFC West application: Great info from Kraft, for starters. What he's saying lines up exactly with the lessons taken from the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston not quite three weeks ago. It was becoming clear then that the San Francisco 49ers, having already invested heavily in their defense, would have to let some key players leave in free agency. Sustainability was the issue. Sure enough, the 49ers parted with Goldson, Delanie Walker and Isaac Sopoaga. Those players had been together with the 49ers since 2007. Walker and Sopoaga arrived even before that. Just as the Patriots did not feel OK paying whatever it took to keep Welker, a player they valued, the 49ers made tough choices, too.