ORLANDO — Robert Kraft always gets a bit nostalgic when he comes to Orlando. Twenty years ago, the city was where he and his family were approved as the new owners of the Patriots.
“We’ve had an interesting couple of decades,” he said Monday at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes as the NFL owners convened for their annual league meetings. “A little emotional coming back.”
Business back at Gillette Stadium is getting a little emotional, as well, with the team at a standoff with franchise cornerstone Vince Wilfork.
Wilfork has asked for his release from the Patriots instead of agreeing to a pay cut, but Kraft is holding out hope that Wilfork will be back this fall. Kraft called Wilfork “one of my personal favorites” and said he hopes the sides can come to a compromise.
The Patriots are trying to decrease Wilfork’s $7.5 million base salary and $11.6 million salary cap number in 2014 — the final year of his contract — and so far Wilfork has not budged.
“In pro sports, it’s a business as well as commitment to one another, and we have to work through it, and I’m still not giving up hope that he’d be part of our team next year,” Kraft said.
“Either we get it done or we don’t. I very much hope we get it done, and I believe he very much would like to do it as well, and we’ve been so lucky to have him, so we’ll see what happens.”
Wilfork, 32, has been with the Patriots since they made him their first-round draft pick (21st overall) in 2004. He has been selected to five Pro Bowls in his 10 seasons and established himself as a pillar in the community through his play and charity work.
“Going back over the last 20 years, we’ve had some pretty special people come through, and he is one of my personal favorites,” Kraft said. “I’m thinking of Tedy Bruschi and Matt Light and Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown. They made their careers with us, and I surely hope Vince will be with us next year.”
But Wilfork is turning 33 this fall and coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon that cost him the last 14 games of the season. He is set to have the second-highest salary cap number on the Patriots, but they can save $8 million in cap space and $7.5 million in salary if they cut him. They also can lower his salary and cap number through a contract extension for one or two more years.
“He’s making some individual decisions, and for us we have to put a team together of over 50 people and we have a salary cap,” Kraft said. “And in the end it’s about both parties feeling that it’s a good transaction and it’s a win-win, and I think that’s what we’re both shooting for.”
The Patriots certainly feel they have had a “win-win” in free agency thus far, adding star cornerback Darrelle Revis while also re-signing Julian Edelman and adding cornerback Brandon Browner and receiver Brandon LaFell.
Kraft said he is “super excited” about the team’s free agent haul, but also expressed caution.
“One thing I’ve learned over 20 years is that winning the offseason isn’t what counts,” he said. “A lot of people win the offseason and you get high, with the different transactions.
“The great thing about the NFL, you need a lot of people, all playing a role, to succeed and get to Jerusalem on the Hill, where we all want to get in February.”
The free agent haul was a bit out of character for the Patriots, who generally don’t spend big. Many observers believe the Patriots are trying to take advantage of the few years they have left with Tom Brady, who will be 37 next season.
“I think sometimes there’s a misconception that we’re changing our philosophy,” said Kraft. “That isn’t true. All that has happened is that opportunities come up in the marketplace, and when they come up, we go for them.
“You want me to tell Brady that you’re suggesting he’s near the end of his career? Is that what you’re suggesting?”
The Revis move has Kraft especially excited. Revis signed with the Patriots just hours after being released by the Buccaneers, and took a surprising one-year, $12 million contract (with an option year that won’t be exercised) when many people expected him to command more as a free agent.
“Here’s a young man who had his choice of going to any team in the NFL he wanted, and he came to us,” Kraft said. “He could have gotten considerable more money going to other teams, but he still came to us. I think he knows we’re committed to winning as an organization. I really believe his priority is trying to win.
“I did have a chance to sit with Revis in Florida. He’s really committed. His commitment to training — I know he’s gone to Arizona and he really wants to win.”
The Browner signing was notable not only because the Patriots signed a big, physical cornerback (6 feet 4 inches, 221 pounds) away from the Super Bowl champion Seahawks, but also because Browner will begin the 2014 season with a four-game suspension because of violations of the NFL’s drug policy.
The Patriots have been wary of signing players with off-field issues given the Aaron Hernandez situation, but Kraft said Browner’s transgressions — he reportedly tested positive for marijuana — aren’t harmful.
“I think we’ve done a very good job in how we’ve vetted all people we’re looking at,” Kraft said. “This wasn’t an individual that was violent with women or doing things that I would personally find objectionable. And there’s always two sides to a story.
“We’re not going to be perfect. But given the information I had, and the transaction we did, I’m comfortable, and pretty positive about him joining us.
“Hopefully he and Revis will be a great combination . . . not that I’m telling Bill [Belichick] who to start.”