In a wide-ranging interview on ESPN Boston Radio on Friday afternoon, New England Patriots president Jonathan Kraft said he wasn't judging tight end Rob Gronkowski for dancing at the team's post-Super Bowl party and revealed the team next week would "start to bring a pretty intense focus" on building the 2012 squad, which includes making a big decision on what to do about free-agent-to-be Wes Welker.
"I actually have only heard about it, I haven't seen the video," Kraft said of Gronkowski, who has been put in the spotlight in recent days as video and photos surfaced of him dancing at the team's party after losing Super Bowl XLVI. "I was long gone from the party when that took place.
"The one thing I do know is the guy absolutely is 100 percent a passionate, passionate competitor when it comes to football. He loves football. He wants to win. He wants to get better. He doesn't like losing. ... He's an ultimate competitor, we're excited he's on our football team.
"The team did accomplish a lot this year, and unfortunately we fell just a little bit short of the ultimate goal. I do think he and the other players probably have different ways of both celebrating what we were able to achieve and then dealing with the disappointment of that night. I think it's hard to personalize how any individual would deal with that and then project it on someone else."
This was the second eyebrow-raising incident of the season for the 22-year-old Gronkowski, who during the team's bye week was photographed bare-chested with adult film star Bibi Jones, who was wearing his No. 87 jersey in an image that went viral on Twitter. Kraft was emphatic that neither episode was concerning to him because it didn't impact what he did on the field.
"He's a young single guy. ... I think he does everything, and then some, that's he's asked to do as it relates to the locker room, the football field, the weight room," Kraft said. "And he brings huge time, energy and passion to that.
"As 21- and 22-year-old guys grow up and mature, different things happen. He hasn't broken any laws, he hasn't done anything else. I think it's hard to place value judgments on things that are personally right for different people. As long as they're not breaking any laws and as long as they're not hurting their ability to compete on the football field, it's hard to criticize them."
Kraft wasn't shedding much light on what the Patriots would do about Welker, though it's widely believed the team will place the franchise tag on him if they can't reach a multi-year contract.
"At a high level, Wes is a really special person, both as a guy off the field as well as the football player," Kraft said. "Hopefully something will work out there."
The Patriots will likely have money to spend in free-agency, which begins March 13. According to one estimate, New England could be up to $20 million under the cap for 2012.
"I think we're in pretty good shape in terms of, we've strategically over the last 18 years of the (salary cap) system tried to always leave ourselves in a position where we had the flexibility and the room to do what we thought was in the team's long-term best interest and not be forced by deals that we did thinking short term that didn't put us in a position where we can't necessarily do what we think is right, Kraft said.
"It's a fine line to walk. We spend a lot of time managing that. There are teams in the league that have made decisions about players, where now halfway or a third of the way into deals they don't have the flexibility to do what they want. And they're probably going to end up having to lose valuable people from their team or not be able to sign guys they want to keep. We try very hard to never be forced into a corner. We want to always say 'here's what we think the value is.' And once we set a value on somebody have the ability to do it. If the player perceives their value to be different, then the deal doesn't get done for that reason. But it doesn't (not) get done because you've left yourself so constructed from a cap management standpoint."
That process kicked off immediately after the Super Bowl ended and will begin in earnest next week.
"The coaches met at the end of last week once we got back from Indy, evaluated our roster and talked about where we thought everybody was," Kraft said. "That will now lead into a process that will take us to free agency. The coaches are deservedly taking today off. They've pretty much worked non-stop since July. They're off today. They'll be back in at the beginning of the week and get cooking on free agency."