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Robert Kraft Believes Patriots Can Contend For Championship This Season, Downplays Other Teams' Free-Agent Additions

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots failed to win a playoff game in 2019, which proved to be Tom Brady's final season in New England. They failed to make the playoffs in 2020. And last year, they returned to the postseason, only to get handed a thoroughly embarrassing 47-17 loss in Buffalo against a division rival.

None of this pleases team owner Robert Kraft.

"I'd just say I'm a Patriot fan, big-time, first," Kraft told reporters in West Palm Beach at the NFL's annual meetings on Tuesday. "And more than anything, it bothers me that we haven't been able to win a playoff game in the last three years."

But he also believes, despite an inactive start to free agency this season, that his team has the ability to contend for a championship as soon as this season.

"I expect it to happen as soon as this year," Kraft said when asked about the team getting back to true contention, per NBC Sports Boston's Phil Perry.

Kraft's reasoning for that confidence comes from the Patriots have a strong head coach in Bill Belichick and a good quarterback in Mac Jones.

That's some fair-enough reasoning, but the picture of the AFC has certainly changed since the end of last season, when the Patriots finished the year in sixth place in the AFC. Even with the Chiefs losing Tyreek Hill, the five teams ahead of them have already improved or at least stayed the same through free agency, while several teams behind them in the standings (Denver, Cleveland, L.A. Chargers, Miami, Indianapolis) made significant additions that will surely lead to significant improvements in the 2022 season.

The Patriots, meanwhile, lost their best cornerback and their two starting guards. They've retained some core players -- Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, Ja'Whaun Bentley, James White -- and re-signed right tackle Trent Brown, but they haven't made any major impact additions to the roster. Ty Montgomery, Terrance Mitchell, and a coming-out-of-retirement Malcolm Butler certainly don't fit that bill.

Despite it appearing as though the Patriots are falling behind, Kraft doesn't quite see things that way.

"Those [signings around the AFC] are good for the headlines but the headlines aren't the substance of what's happening," Kraft said, per Patriots.com's Tamara Brown. "In the end I go back to '01. We definitely didn't have the best headlines and talent but we had the best team. And they came together. And that taught me a lot, that the chemistry of what goes on and the intellect of the people you come in and who have to understand your system, just because a guy has a record over here and then goes to another place, it doesn't ensure success. But we'll see."

Kraft reiterated that point, saying, "People get all excited with the headlines now, but in the end it's what happens throughout the entire year," according to The Athletic's Matthew Fairburn.

Another aspect of concern from the outside involves the coaching staff. With Josh McDaniels going to Las Vegas -- along with Mick Lombardi, Bo Hardegree, and Carmen Bricillo -- the Patriots have lost most of their offensive coaching staff, including one of the most experienced and respected offensive coordinators in the game. As it stands now, it appears as though the offense will be run by Joe Judge, whose Giants finished 31st in the NFL in offense during his two years in New York -- a tenure that led to an abrupt firing and the owner noting that the organization had "done everything possible to screw [Daniel Jones] up."

Kraft was asked what his confidence level is in the assistant coaching staff, with no named coordinators on either side of the football.

"I think we have it. I think Bill has a unique way of doing things. It's worked out pretty well up to now," Kraft said. "So I know what I don't know, and I try to stay out of the way of things I don't know. I think he's pretty good -- you know, he's got over 40 years of experience doing it. So it doesn't sometimes look straight-line to our fans or to myself, but I'm results-oriented."

Kraft made that results-oriented approach quite clear a year ago, when he spoke to reporters and insisted that the only way to build a reliably stable football team is through the draft. During that press conference, he said that he didn't believe the Patriots had done the greatest job in the draft in the previous years, helping to lead to their 7-9 finish in 2020.

Belichick responded by hitting on three of his top four picks -- Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Rhamondre Stevenson -- while also adding a couple of players with some potential in years two and three, like Ronnie Perkins and Cameron McGrone. Kraft repeated the need to hit on draft picks when speaking on Tuesday.

"I'm happy that we had a great -- I think we had a great draft last year, and it made up for what happened the previous four years or so," Kraft said. "And I look forward to hopefully having a great draft this year. That's the only way you can build your team for the long term and consistently that you have a chance of winning, is having a good draft."

Clearly, Kraft is once applying some gentle pressure by way of honesty about the importance of the draft.

The Patriots certainly had some early-round busts in Dominique Easley (first round, 2014), Jordan Richards (second round, 2015), Cyrus Jones (second round, 2016), Duke Dawson (second round, 2018), and N'Keal Harry (first round, 2019) in recent years. They've also had high draft picks with output that hasn't matched the draft status, like Malcom Brown (first round, 2015), Derek Rivers (third round, 2017), Joejuan Williams (second round, 2019), Josh Uche (second round, 2020), Anfernee Jennings (third round, 2020), Devin Asiasi (third round, 2020), and Dalton Keene (third round, 2020).

In terms of real impact players drafted since 2014, the Patriots have certainly gotten a lot out of James White (fourth round, 2014), Trey Flowers (fourth round, 2015), Shaq Mason (fourth round, 2015), Joe Thuney (third round, 2016), Ted Karras (sixth round, 2016), Isaiah Wynn (first round, 2018), Damien Harris (third round, 2019), Kyle Dugger (second round, 2020), and the aforementioned trio of Jones-Barmore-Stevenson from a year ago.

Of course, another strong draft will be needed for the Patriots to progress forward rather than fall backward in the AFC pack this year. Kraft is hopeful that the advancement can happen, but for the second straight year, he's let it be known quite clearly that he'll be watching the draft selections with a very close eye.

As it stands now, the Patriots have not won a playoff game for three years running. The only time that happened during the Brady era came from 2008-10. Brady obviously missed the '08 season with his knee injury, and the Patriots missed the playoffs. The '09 Patriots rebuilt on the fly and were blown out at home by the Ravens in January. The 2010 Patriots went 14-2 and were the best team in the NFL before a choke job at home against the hated Rex Ryan-era Jets.

Those Patriots came back with a Super Bowl trip the following year, and they'd kick off a new dynasty a few years later. Whether this iteration of the Patriots, now without the greatest quarterback of all time, has that kind of run in them remains to be seen. But Kraft -- along with most Patriots fans -- isn't particularly keen on seeing the playoff win drought extend any longer than it's already gone.

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