Patriots president Jonathan Kraft on QB Tom Brady: “I think he’s the greatest competitor we’ve ever seen in this country in any sport.”
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft once again spoke on a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, sharing insight on the role analytics plays for the defending Super Bowl champions.
Kraft was part of the “Creating a Sports Legacy” panel alongside Philadelphia 76ers/New Jersey Devils owner Josh Harris and sports agent/president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee Casey Wasserman, and with such brainpower on stage last week, I learned a lot.
One thing that stood out specific to The Patriots is their forward-thinking approach with technology and scouting, and what has resulted from it.
“When we came into the league [in 1994], there were a couple of national scouting services that every team subscribed to, because it was hard to get tape or film on everybody. So everybody was getting the same reports on the same players. You had your own scouts that would go out and look at things, but it made no sense to us, how the most competitive part of this business, you’re sharing,” Kraft said on the panel, which was moderated by ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan.
“So we started working on early iterations of a proprietary database. Flash-forward to today, off any mobile device, you can access information about any player on our roster, or anybody we’re scouting, analyzed in our system’s dynamics, and then tracked once they become a pro even if they’re not with us.
“What that lets us start to do is see how good our internal scouting metrics were early on. You start to track and see where scouts have strengths and weaknesses. So we know, ‘Maybe Scout X, he nails it on receivers. But on D-linemen, he doesn’t.’ Then you also start to learn things about the players as well …
“Even if the players aren’t with us, as we track them at other teams and how they’re performing relative to the way we thought they’d perform and what their metrics were, it lets you hone your own analytics.”
Kraft stressed the importance of technology in helping The Patriots, noting that the franchise is doing more with sleep, nutrition and fitness, among other areas.
Later in the panel, Kraft was asked a question from the audience on how he prepares to lead a successful organization that has created an unrealistic expectation of success.
“If someone asked me what keeps me awake at night, as it relates to our sports businesses, that would be the question,” he answered. “If you’re going to have a problem, if we are as described, it’s a good problem to have. I think what makes it harder in the NFL … it’s building the team and that’s why the personnel tools I was talking about are so important to us.
“What keeps us awake at night is how we’re going to stay at least at a consistently above-average level — if not competing for championships — when the coach and the quarterback who are such important elements of the group that puts a football team together are no longer with us. You just want that culture so strong — and all the other players and coaches who are there, and all the supporting tools, to be as strong as possible, to have whatever competitive advantage we might have had built into it so you can build off that.”
2. Two other things I jotted down from the “Creating a Sports Legacy” panel:
3. The Patriots passed on using the franchise tag on defensive end Trey Flowers ($17.1 million), offensive tackle Trent Brown ($14.01 million) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski ($5.98 million) and my sense is that it was never a strong consideration. Besides creating a situation that could spark animosity between the player and team, The Patriots have been reluctant to use the tag in recent years in part because of the financial expectation it can create with a longer-term deal. The club, from my view, notably altered its thinking along those lines after tagging receiver Wes Welker at $9.5 million in 2012. The next year, Welker signed a modest two-year deal with a maximum value of $12 million in Denver after a challenging negotiation. They’ve used the tag only one year since — in 2015 with Gostkowski — and the extension they ultimately signed Gostkowski to after tagging him remains the richest deal ever inked by a kicker (based on average annual value).
4a. One leftover from a conversation with receiver Phillip Dorsett, who eyes the chance to be a starter in free agency: “I’m at a loss of words when you talk about Tom [Brady]. He’s just an amazing guy and obviously an amazing football player. He’s made me so much better as a player myself, as a receiver, learning the ins and outs of the game and different coverages — and how to run this route, or how to run it against a different coverage. He’s taught me so much. I’m blessed to be able to say I played with him.”
4b. My opinion on Dorsett’s future: The Patriots would welcome him back in a similar role to what he filled in 2018 as a reliable backup. If the market offers Dorsett a chance for more, I’d predict that he signs elsewhere. If it doesn’t, the door is open for a return from both the team and Dorsett.
5. Who knew? Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy and Gostkowski are golf partners in the offseason, which was one of the fun nuggets I picked up when watching the just-released “Super Bowl LIII Champions” DVD. When Gostkowski was lining up his winning kick against the Chiefs on Oct. 14, microphones picked up Van Noy and linebacker Dont’a Hightower on the bench, with Van Noy telling Hightower he was pulling for his golf partner to make the kick. Hightower, knowing what was at stake in the game, smiled as he called Gostkowski his best friend.
6. The Patriots released veteran tight end Dwayne Allen last week because his $6.4 million base salary wasn’t aligned with his projected role in 2019, and another player who could be in line for a similar fate is veteran defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He’s due a base salary of $3.5 million and a cap charge of $5.9 million in 2019. For a player who was inactive for the final two games of the regular season, and had a niche role as a sub rusher (30 percent of the defensive snaps in the regular season), it wouldn’t surprise me if The Patriots view those figures as too rich (especially after agreeing to trade for veteran defensive end Michael Bennett on Friday).
7. If I’m a Dolphins fan, I would have loved hearing this detail from former Executive Vice President Mike TanneNBAum on ESPN’s NFL Live program last week, as it relates to the thoroughness of general manager Chris Grier: “Going back to 2016, we go to IndiaNapolis [for the combine], and the Tennessee Titans have the first pick in the draft and they have a big need at left tackle, and everyone is like, ‘They’re going to take Laremy Tunsil.’ You’re allowed to interview 60 people at night, for 15 minutes, and Chris said, ‘We’re going to interview Laremy Tunsil.’ And I said, ‘Come on, Chris. Really?’ To his credit, we go through it and we were prepared. Obviously, there was a little bit of a bump in the road for Laremy on draft night, and the player we had as the No. 1 player on our board fell all the way to us at No. 13. It turned out to be a great decision for us in Miami, and it all went back to falling back on our process.”
8. Though Gostkowski’s success rate on field goals beyond 40 yards has dipped in recent years, as has some of his distance on kickoffs, I still view his return to The Patriots with high odds as free agency gets set to open this week. Yet that’s also the way I viewed Adam Vinatieri‘s free-agent status in 2005, and he departed to IndiaNapolis, so being prepared with a Plan B is always a smart approach for the team. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Jason Myers. The 27-year-old Jets kicker was voted to the Pro Bowl (33 of 36 on field goals; 30 of 33 on extra points) in 2018, and has a 73 percent touchback rate. In November, when The Patriots were preparing to play the Jets, Bill Belichick noted Myers’ strong leg and how it would be challenging to get the kickoff return game going against him.
9. If the Cardinals elect to draft quarterback Kyler Murray No. 1 overall, and then make Josh Rosen available in a trade, would The Patriots be interested in Rosen as a possible heir to Brady? That has been a popular question on Twitter of late, and I view it in two layers: player evaluation, and then trade/financial value. Rosen, the 10th overall pick in last year’s draft, would be a great trade/financial value if the cost was just a late third-round pick as some project, and with three years and only $6.2 million left on his contract. But if The Patriots’ evaluation of Rosen as a player/leader isn’t favorable, then the trade/financial value doesn’t mean as much. So that’s the key. It’s a thought-provoking scenario to consider.
10. As part of standard operating procedure, several Patriots players returned to town early last week for injury check-ups. The timing of those check-ups, right before the start of free agency, gives the team the most up-to-date medical information on its players as it works to make the most informed decisions. That also might have been the catalyst for the the team to release first-year receiver Darren Andrews, who spent last season on the team’s non-football injury list after having tore his ACL in November of 2017 at UCLA.