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'Securing talent' part of Kraft's strategic plan

BOCA RATON, Fla. - The NFL is saturated with wealthy individuals, many of whom are gathered at an opulent resort on Florida's Atlantic coast this week. Team owners, general managers, head coaches, and other front office executives are taking part in the NFL's Annual Meeting, the most important business conference of the year.

One of them, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, spent some time Monday discussing some of the other affluent members of the league - its players. His in particular.

With the free agent signing period nearly two weeks old, Kraft's club made a flurry of moves last week to infuse New England's roster with new veteran talent. This, after the team added two years to the contract of franchise quarterback Tom Brady - something Kraft dubbed a "privilege."

"So, please God, that works out in full and we'll have, in my opinion, the greatest quarterback of all time with us for 20 years. In today's world of free agency, to have that happen, is so difficult," said Kraft, "and at the same time, we've been able to make some positive moves in free agency. I don't remember another time where, in the first couple of weeks, we were able to pick up four people who were first-round draft choices [guard Jonathan Cooper, tight end Martellus Bennett, linebacker Shea McClellin, and defensive end Chris Long].

"I think the trades we were able to do were positive long-term for the Patriots."

Yet, even while he and his top brass remain busy recruiting players to join the Patriots, Kraft is conscious of the fact that some of his existing players might look at the dollars being spent and wonder when they'll see more of them in their paychecks.

The Patriots recently formalized the exercise of an option in the contract of tight end Rob Gronkowski that extends his deal through the 2019 season, while paying him the remainder of a $10 million bonus. Gronkowski, the All-Pro and perhaps best ever at his position, posted a Tweet shortly thereafter half-joking that he was taking a "pay cut."

"Every time I see him, he's smiling, he hugs me, he almost lifts me up, so, I think he' s quite happy to be here and we love having him," Kraft remarked. "We got him a partner in Martellus Bennett. We think that they should be a pretty fun combo for our fans to watch this year. And I know that Tom Brady is very happy with that addition."

On the other side of the ball, New England has a number of young defensive players who are candidates to have their existing contracts extended before they expire, namely linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower and cornerback Malcolm Butler. Those players are working with deals that, relative to others in the league at their positions, are below market value given their skills.

"I'm waiting for one of these same people," Kraft said, speaking in general terms, "to come and say, 'We're overpaid. Please take that money and give it to some of my other friends who play on the team.' We're doing the best we can. When you're privileged to be successful, everybody believes that their contribution is maybe greater than it is.

"I was talking to one of the senior folks at the [Super Bowl 50 champion Denver] Broncos and they have an interesting situation going on there now - everybody is coming and wants their fair share - so we understand."

However, Kraft was quick to assert that he intends to do everything in his power to make his team strong this year and in the future to continue to compete for the division, conference, and league titles that New England is able to win more so often.

"Securing the young talent we have, hopefully for the long run, is part of our strategic plan," Kraft declared.

"It's nice to step back and contemplate a little bit. This is our 23rd season [as Patriots owners] - which is hard to believe," he chuckled, "because I still think we're newcomers to the NFL - but seeing March 9th [the start of free agency] come made me feel pretty good because anyone who's a fan of the Patriots knows how disappointing the ending of last season was to us. I see a lot of positive things with the upcoming 2016 season."

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