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Money men

Evaluating and ranking all the NFL owners, from 1-32

Posted: Monday July 2, 2007 12:15PM; Updated: Monday July 2, 2007 4:42PM
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The Patriots sorely missed Deion Branch in last season's AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots sorely missed Deion Branch in last season's AFC Championship Game.
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Also in this column: Take it to the ATM, Trippin' on Email.

Ten months ago, amid the muggy tyranny of summer and the unrelenting heat of a high-profile holdout, the shrewd men who manage the New England Patriots made one of their rare missteps.

With wideout Deion Branch looking for far more money than the Pats were willing to pay, owner Robert Kraft signed off on a peculiar strategy. Last Aug. 25, the team announced it had given Branch and his agents a one-week window to seek a trade and negotiate a contract with another team.

In what proved to be a massive miscalculation of Branch's free-market value, the Patriots seethed as the Jets and Seahawks swooped in to make fat offers. Eventually, in a move that angered star quarterback Tom Brady and many of his teammates, the Patriots sent Branch to Seattle for a first-round pick in the '07 draft.

When all was said and done, Kraft and his heavily involved eldest son, team president Jonathan, could justify their decision thusly: They didn't believe Branch was more valuable than last April's 24th-overall pick, and they certainly didn't think he was worth the six-year, $39 million deal he got from the Seahawks. Look at it this way: At the time Branch signed that contract, he was scheduled to pull in more cash over the following three seasons than any other receiver in football.

Yet, as Kraft watched last January's AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis -- with Reche Caldwell dropping key passes and New England lacking a first-rate wideout when Brady most needed one -- the owner was smart and realistic enough to understand this harsh truth: The decision to part with Branch may well have cost his team a fourth Super Bowl championship in six seasons.

Kraft's reaction? The Pats went out and beefed up their roster with one of the most aggressive and productive offseasons in NFL history, including a marquee signing (do-everything linebacker Adalius Thomas) and the acquisition of four receivers capable of having a big impact: Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, Wes Welker and Kelley Washington. Best of all, New England pulled it off without screwing up its cap-savvy salary structure -- and somehow came away with an extra first-round pick in the '08 draft.

It is proactive behavior like this that makes Kraft a fan favorite -- and, as with last year, the man at the top of our annual NFL Owner Rankings. Once again, many factors are considered -- business savvy, devotion to league growth, aggressive pursuit of winning -- with one overriding consideration: If you're a fan of the team in question, do you want this person (or people) making the big decisions.

1. Robert Kraft (Jonathan Kraft), Patriots

First of all -- and this is an entire column topic for the future -- can we all raise our hands and agree that the switch from Paul Tagliabue to Roger Goodell has been one of the better things to happen to the league in recent memory? Most owners and league insiders would endorse that statement, and Kraft has long been one of the new commissioner's most trusted advisors on big-picture matters ranging from television to labor negotiations.

As for on-the-field matters, even if you believe that Randy Moss is the exact type of player you wouldn't want in a team atmosphere -- as I do -- you have to concede that Kraft got a ton of potential value for relatively little financial risk, even if Moss acts like a jerk and the Patriots cut him. Assuming Brady and coach Bill Belichick hang around for the next five to 10 years, Kraft has a chance to score a record number of Lombardi Trophies for a franchise that barely sniffed a title before he took over. Perhaps even more improbably, he and Jonathan are in the process of making Foxborough, Mass., a nice place to visit, thanks to the $350 million that will build Patriot Place, a retail and entertainment complex in the shadow of Gillette Stadium.

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