Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been charged for soliciting prostitution at a day spa that’s part of a larger sex-trafficking sting unfolding in South Florida. What does he face next, and how will the league step in? Also, it’s NFL combine week, so we run down the strengths and weaknesses of this draft class, how Haskins and Murray compare to last year’s QBs, who might be the next Gronkowski and much more.
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — Patriots owner Robert Kraft, on a surface level, is far from his usual self at the NFL’s spring meeting. Normally omnipresent at league events like this, Kraft—three months removed from being charged with two misdemeanor counts of soliciting prostitution in Jupiter, Fla.—is quietly ducking in and out of rooms, isn’t making much small talk with those outside the highest levels of the game and was invisible when most of his peers climbed into black cars to leave the Ritz-Carlton late Wednesday.
But contrary to what we all saw at the annual meeting two months ago, Kraft wasn’t hiding this week in South Florida. He was present at a reception on the hotel deck Tuesday night. He walked freely past cameras on his way into Wednesday sessions. His interaction with his peers was normal.
That isn’t the only thing to have changed since March’s league meetings—attitudes surrounding Kraft’s situations have shifted too. More specifically, most owners and team executives sure seem to have cooled on the idea that discipline under the league’s personal conduct policy is a necessary step, now that Kraft’s solicitation case has made its way through the courts, and the video evidence has been thrown out. Gone with that evidence, most think, is the state’s case. And the sense among those at the league meeting is that if Kraft wins in a court, there’s a decent chance he’ll also escape league discipline.
Asked if he thinks Kraft will be sanctioned late Wednesday, one NFC team exec answered, “No, nor should he be.” An owner from another NFC team, when asked the same question, said, “I’d be pretty surprised if he was.”
The Patriots kick off their season hosting the Steelers on Sept. 8, and the raising of their sixth world championship banner will be broadcast live to national audience on Sunday Night Football. Don’t be surprised if the franchise’s patriarch is present and accounted for.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’re going to dig through all your questions, including some interesting ones on …
• How Eli Manning will play in 2019.
• Where Lamar Jackson is as a quarterback.
• Who I see as the next crop of promising young coaches.
• When this season’s Hard Knocks team will be announced.
But we’re starting by taking you inside this week’s meetings, not far from where Super Bowl LIV will be played about eight months from now.
And by starting there, we’re going to explain why it looks like Kraft has what I’d say is a better than a 50-50 shot of sidestepping a suspension from the league. It’s not a sure thing. Some other owners believe the league should be compelled to do something—because of how the incident reflected upon the NFL—to close the book on the Kraft story. But that’s not nearly the prevailing thought it once was.
First, the facts. As of two days ago, five judges had thrown the evidentiary video out on a count of the police surveillance not being properly minimized to avoid capturing non-criminal activity. A judge agreed to postpone Kraft’s trial indefinitely while the prosecutors appeal the decision on the video. The case, as a result, won’t be heard until at least Sept. 4. And until it’s closed, the NFL isn’t likely to say much.
“I’m not going to speculate on ... discipline,” commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday. “Again, getting all the facts. But, yes, of course, we’ll be gathering our own facts and finding out what actually transpired, as we would with any case.”
With that established, it seems very unlikely that Kraft loses in court. A dismissal of the case would mean Kraft would have a misdemeanor charge without a conviction in a non-violent case—and the league has never punished a player, owner or anyone else in such a situation. And while Kraft has conceded what’s on the video, he’s also insisted he didn’t do anything illegal.
On top of that, there are two quiet, but strong, signs of late to foreshadow what might be coming whenever the legal side of this case is adjudicated.
First, the players and union have not pushed whatsoever to assure Kraft is punished as a result of the incident. In fact, it was pointed out to me that sanctions here could create a precedent that players might not want. And one union source said, on Kraft, “I’m not sure it’s really relevant for us. … It’s far more offensive that [Browns owner Jimmy] Haslam has escaped punishment than Kraft not having been punished.”
What the NFLPA monitors in these cases is consistency. Yes, owners are supposed to be held to a higher standard. But not suspending Kraft, because of the non-violent nature of his charges, wouldn’t constitute any kind of inconsistency.
Second, league officials and owners have approached Kraft with the suggestion that he voluntarily make a large contribution to an associated cause—even though this case was found to not be connected to human-trafficking—as part of the league getting closure on his case and moving on.
The league can only fine Kraft up to $500,000, which is a relatively light slap on the wrist, given his net worth of nearly $7 billion, and would come off as such publicly. So Kraft upping his own expense would go a long way toward threading the needle between a financial penalty that feels like nothing, and the significance of missing the opener.
Right now I can’t tell you categorically Kraft won’t be suspended. If the video somehow gets out—and Kraft assembling the legal team he did was to stop that—everything changes. But if I had to guess, my guess would be he’ll get the final result he’s sought here. And even 36 hours ago, I wouldn’t have said that.
A few other pieces picked up from the meetings …
The league announced that the start times of the divisional playoff games on Sunday would be moved to 3 and 6:30 p.m. ET, a decision driven by—what else?—ratings. The NFL’s broadcast people told the owners on Wednesday that their data shows that 9% more people are watching TV on a Sunday at 3 p.m. ET than at 1:05 p.m., and 7% more people are watching at 6:30 p.m. ET than at 4:40 p.m. ET.
And a side benefit is that it’ll allow flexibility in scheduling teams. Before, there was no way a team playing in Pacific or Mountain time could host the early Sunday game on the divisional weekend. Now, those teams can, giving the league flexibility to do whatever they want with the four top seeds.
This schedule change won’t happen to wild-card Sunday. Or at least it won’t for a while. The belief was that having a team to play 6:30 p.m. ET on Sunday that weekend, then again on Saturday could potentially create a competitive problem. So those games will remain at 1:05 p.m. ET and 4:40 p.m. ET.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie spoke up on the discussed overtime tweaks in the room. The NFL empowered the competition committee to change the review process inside the two-minute mark of each half and in overtime, making pass interference and only pass interference part of the coaches challenge system in those times. Lurie’s concern was coaches will hold challenges for that, given the importance of those plays. So he suggested adding a designated challenge for under two minutes and overtime. Just as the competition committee is now empowered to enact the OPI/DPI coaches challenge tweak, it’s also empowered to enact Lurie’s tweak.
For the record, I’ve never seen a bull-in-the-ring drill at an NFL training camp. Oklahomas were also increasingly rare. I’d maybe seen (or heard of) three or four instances of those in the last half-decade. So I really believe the NFL outlawing these drills was as much about sending a cultural message to other levels of the sport as anything else.
The NFL draft was awarded to Cleveland in 2021 and Kansas City in ’23. That announcement received the attention, but I’d pay closer attention to what the league did with the combine—only extending its deal to have it in Indianapolis one year (through the winter of 2021), and moving drills into the afternoon and primetime. There’s no question the NFL has looked at the draft’s growth, and tried to project what it could do with the combine as a result of that. And this seems to be a big step towards moving it out of Indy. There’s been a ton of speculation that Los Angeles could be its next home, which is a possibility. Moving it around, similar to the draft, might be just as likely. I’d say Dallas’ new facility in Frisco, Texas may be even more ready to host than L.A. will be in 2022.
The owners did get a briefing on CBA talks, and held a 45-minute strategy session. Owners, players, Goodell, union executive director DeMaurice Smith, and staff had a bargaining session on May 8 in New York to follow up the first session bebtween the sides, which happened April 9 in Minneapolis. And Goodell painted a rosy picture at his press conference. The truth, though, is there’s a long way to go. The league and union are still at the stage where they’re identifying issues that they’ll have to work through. The good news is that things have stayed on track through the first two summits. The sides already have a date to meet in June.
Now to your mail …
From CRhodesSource (@CRhodesSource): What do you think we will see from Eli Manning—a good year or someone who will fade?
I think Manning will have a relatively good year. Even without Odell Beckham Jr., having Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley behind him isn’t bad. And the line should be better, with Will Hernandez in Year 2 and Kevin Zeitler added at the guard spots.
But what do I mean by relatively good in this case? The Giants have made the playoffs once in the last seven seasons (2016), and that season Manning threw for 4,027 yards, put up a 26-16 TD-INT ratio and ended with a 86.0 quarterback rating. I could see him in that neighborhood this year, so long as the Giants don’t lose as much as they did last year—if they do lose like that, Manning will probably get the hook. That’s the difference in having a first-round pick behind you.
From Keith Caito (@fivetoolnerd): Do the Patriots complete a trade for a more significant WR or TE before training camp, or is this their group?
The Patriots are always open to making moves in the summer and into the fall, and so nothing would surprise me on that front. In the short term, I’d say a move is more likely at tight end than receiver, because getting young guys (N’Keal Harry, Braxton Berrios) at the latter spot reps will be important. If those guys aren’t ready, then the team should make a move.
Conversely, the tight end position is scotch-taped together right now, with Benjamin Watson and Austin Sererian-Jenkins carrying track record, but question marks when it comes to age and durability. So if there a chance to flip, say, Kyle Rudolph (at an affordable rate) in for Seferian-Jenkins, you can see where it’d make sense to do that, especially since there aren’t younger players a new acquisition would be taking work form.
From Kirk Ford (@LIONSCJ11): When will the NFL announce which team appears on Hard Knocks this season?
Kirk, just recently, our Conor Orr examined four teams who need the Hard Knocks boost this season. And just for the hell of it, I looked up the dates on which HBO announced every Hard Knocks team since the lockout. Here’s what I found …
Dolphins (2012): May 29
Bengals (2013): June 15
Falcons (2014): June 12
Texans (2015): May 27
Rams (2016): March 23
Bucs (2017): April 19
Browns (2018): May 17
You’re reading this on May 23. So my read here? I think NFL Films and HBO would love to have a team in place right now, but it’s not a killer that they don’t. And my guess right now would be the Raiders would be the right team, among those who can be forced in.
From Dan (@DaCanMan): What, if anything, have you heard about Lamar Jackson’s development as a passer? Do you think the addition of two early-round wide receivers and two tight ends last year implies that Roman’s offense won’t be totally run first this season?
I think there was some reason for concern at the end of last year—and, at least for right now, the Ravens are building around Jackson the runner. Having Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews helps the run game, because both are queens on the chess board and keep safeties out of the box. And both Hollywood Brown and Miles Boykin can fly, which will work to stretch the feel and create room to run.
Long-term, will Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman be able to sustain that kind of offense? Sure, but Roman will have to be awfully creative in the run game, which he is, to make that work, and he will have to hope that his quarterback grows as a passer along the way.
From dadtrick (@PatsATweetin): Teams keep trying the “use the cheap young QB window” to build a championship team, but has that actually paid off for any team besides Seattle with Wilson and maybe Philadelphia with Wentz/Foles?
Seattle is the best example of this. It also worked, simultaneously, for the 49ers, who locked up an outrageously talented young core together as Colin Kaepernick was playing on a second-round rookie contract. Wentz is another example, as is his draft classmate Jared Goff, who’s been surrounded with guys like Brandin Cooks and Andrew Whitworth in part as a result of his affordable contract.
It’s clear that having a talented quarterback on an affordable contract makes a difference, because it allows a team to have another three or four good players on the roster as a result of this dynamic. The harder part, of course, is landing the right quarterback, and then also hitting on outside acquisitions. If a team can do that, it will be in pretty good shape.
From Stephen G (@Stephen26497576) Who are some up-and-coming coordinators in the league that could be in the conversation for head coaching positions if they perform well this year?
I’ll give you five early names to watch—excluding the Josh McDanielses of the world, who’d be on their second chances as head coach—that you might not know as much about …
Ravens DC Wink Martindale: He’s paid his dues and deserves a shot. He’s not young like the other guys, but is great with players and an excellent tactician. Hiring him would not be unlike the Broncos tabbing Vic Fangio or the Vikings picking Mike Zimmer.
Bucs OC Todd Monken: Every team that’s interviewed Monken has come away impressed—and he did so well in his interview with the Jets, that the team tried to get Baylor coach Matt Rhule to come to New York with the ex-Bucs OC as his top lieutenant. If Baker Mayfield blows up like many think he will, you’ll hear more about this 53-year-old.
Cowboys DBs coach Kris Richard: At this point, Richard is the de facto DC in Dallas, and came damn close to become an HC in Miami in January. Richard’s a strong personality and proved himself as a tactician as a young Cowboy defense came together last year. He doesn’t turn 40 until October.
Vikings OC Kevin Stefanski: The 37-year-old made the Browns stop and think before going with Freddie Kitchens last year, and got a little play-calling experience under his belt at the end of last year. If he can get a better year out of Kirk Cousins in 2019, and the Vikings win, he’ll probably get shots at more interviews this time around.
Rams pass-game coordinator Shane Waldron: Sean McVay’s lost Matt LaFleur and Zac Taylor the last couple years, but all along Waldron’s been his closest football confidant, and probably his most relied-upon offensive assistant. Waldron drew interest last year and, like Richard, is still a few months short of 40.
From Dave DiPalma (@DoubleD1458): Will Eagles be losing their assistant GM to the Jets?
We’ll wrap it up here with Dave’s question, which references Eagles VP of player personnel Joe Douglas. Dave, I do believe Douglas would be Adam Gase’s first choice. I also believe with each day that passes, and it’s not Douglas, there’s a greater chance that winds up being someone else.
Why? Because usually when teams have a guy targeted, they move very aggressively through the process. The Jets haven’t done that, which tells me either they’re very committed to having an open process, something they’ve talked about publicly, or they can’t get Douglas to say yes. The latter is possible too, since Douglas has a great rep and will have more chances down the line.
And if we’re being honest, as I wrote last week, the job’s a little bit of a tough sell right now.
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