Robert Kraft: Aaron Hernandez said he was innocent

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft testified Tuesday that his former star tight end Aaron Hernandez told him he was innocent when asked if he was involved in a 2013 killing.

Kraft was called by the prosecution in Hernandez’s murder trial over the June 17, 2013, slaying of Odin Lloyd, who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee.

He at times seemed uncomfortable on the stand, even when he was asked where he worked. He first said 1 Patriot Place, the address of Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots play. When asked what he did at work, he replied, “Whatever they ask me to do.” Then, asked if he ran a business, he replied: “We’re a packaging and paper business and private equity, and we have two sports teams.” He first listed the New England Revolution soccer team, then the Patriots.

Kraft was asked about the events of June 19, two days after the killing. By then, Kraft said, there was a strong media presence at Gillette Stadium, including helicopters, which were covering the investigation.

Kraft said he found Hernandez in a weight room working out and pulled him into an adjacent office for a private talk.

“I understood there was an incident that had transpired, and I wanted to know whether he was involved, and if he was, any player that comes into our system, I consider part of our extended family, and I wanted to get him help,” he said.

“What did he say?” prosecutor William McCauley asked.

“He said he was not involved. That he was innocent and that he hoped that the time of the murder incident came out because he said he was in a club,” Kraft said.

Prosecutors have said Hernandez was at a bar earlier in the evening, then drove to Boston with two friends, picked up Lloyd and killed him in an industrial park.

Kraft said his conversation with Hernandez lasted five to 10 minutes.

Later, he saw him one last time at the stadium.

“He hugged and kissed me and thanked me for my concern,” Kraft said.

Hernandez signed a $40 million contract with the Patriots in 2012, but as defense lawyer Michael Fee questioned him, Kraft said he couldn’t remember whether it ran through the 2018 season.

“I don’t get into the details. I just knew we signed him,” he said, adding that Hernandez was signed because he was “a very good player.”

Hernandez watched closely during Kraft’s testimony, which lasted a little over 30 minutes.

Next to the stand was the Patriots’ director of security, Mark Briggs. He said he also had a conversation with Hernandez on June 19.

“I asked him why he’d lawyered up,” he said.

The judge struck the comment from the record and instructed the jury that citizens do not have any obligation to speak with police.

Briggs said Hernandez told him that he had been with Lloyd at a club and they went their separate ways, so Hernandez gave him keys to a vehicle. He told him those keys were found in Lloyd’s pocket, Briggs said.

Investigators did find keys to an SUV Hernandez rented in Lloyd’s pocket.

Briggs said he asked Hernandez if he was involved in Lloyd’s killing, and Hernandez replied no. He said he then looked in his eyes and asked if he was telling the truth.

“He swore on his baby’s life that he was telling the truth,” Briggs said.

Briggs said the following day, Hernandez showed up at Gillette Stadium, and Briggs asked him to leave, which Hernandez did.

“You asked him to leave the stadium because his presence there was bad for business?” Fee asked.

“That is correct,” Briggs replied.

Hernandez was arrested June 26 in Lloyd’s slaying. Less than two hours later, he was cut from the team.

Also Tuesday, lawyers said they expect to wrap up their cases next week. McCauley named for the judge just a handful of additional witnesses to call and said he expected to rest Thursday. He did not name any other members of the Patriots organization or anyone affiliated with the NFL. That likely means that Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Miami Dolphins player Mike Pouncey and others listed as potential witnesses will not be called.

Hernandez lawyer James Sultan asked the judge to hear arguments on some pending issues Friday and said he expected to put on witnesses and finish Monday. Both sides will also deliver closing arguments, then deliberations will begin.

Jameis Winston impresses during Florida St. pro day

Jameis Winston dodged brooms and blocking pads. He threw over outstretched arms and tennis rackets. He completed passes from the pocket and on the run.

Even when it was time for a brief break during Florida State’s pro day Tuesday, Winston grabbed the water bottles and served his teammates.

No doubt, Winston put on quite a show for NFL coaches, general managers and scouts.

The Seminoles star threw passes for nearly an hour, demonstrating arm strength, accuracy and stamina while drawing cheers from the hundreds on hand.

His next public workout might be as the top pick in the NFL draft.

Winston sent a strong message — literally — that he should be the first player taken in next month’s draft. Asked why Tampa Bay should select him, Winston didn’t hesitate to respond.

“Because I’m the best player in this draft,” he said.

That would be hard to argue after his 55-minute passing session Tuesday that only solidified what NFL teams have seen from Winston the last two years as Florida State’s starter.

While Winston struggled early in the workout when asked to throw the ball more on the move, he threw effectively on deep passes from the pocket, and finished with a series of red-zone throws that were praised across the board.

“I thought his red zone was really, really good. I saw the bounce back in Jameis Winston’s stride at that time,” analyst Charles Davis said.

Winston completed 91 of 102 passes, with at least half of the incompletions being drops. Of course, the routes didn’t include defenders, but executives were more concerned with little details that typically go unnoticed to untrained eyes.

“It was very good, excellent. He had a great day,” Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said. “He threw a full nine innings. It looked good.”

Licht said Winston was in better shape than he was at the NFL combine, which should alleviate any concerns that may have arose after those unflattering photos of Winston’s gut circulated on the Internet and on social media sites.

“I think that maybe puts a little water on that, puts that fire out,” said Licht, part of a big Bucs contingent that included coach Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Licht said Winston’s conditioning, leadership and arm strength stood out at Florida State’s indoor practice facility.

“That was pretty impressive,” he said. “I’m sure it’s bittersweet for the coaching staff here at Florida State to watch him today.”

But some seemed to think that Winston looks flabby.

Maybe he’s just a guy who doesn’t look very athletic, but is able to produce on the field anyway.

Winston announced in January he was entering the NFL draft, leaving behind a tumultuous college career that included a lengthy sexual assault investigation. He met with teams at the combine and met with the Tennessee Titans, who have the No. 2 pick in the draft, following his pro day Tuesday. Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt declined interview requests. So did New Orleans coach Sean Payton.

Winston was scheduled to hold a private workout for Tampa Bay next week in Tallahassee.

“It’s been a huge job interview, and I’ve loved it,” said Winston, who played baseball at FSU the last two springs. “This is the first time I’ve been able to be a quarterback year-round. This is the first time I’ve been able to just sit and talk to another man eye to eye about what they may think about me or about what I might do.

“It’s not like talking to the media. You’re talking to another man, eye to eye, about why they should pick you. This has been a very enjoyable process, and I love every second of it. If it’s something dealing with football, I love it.”

Winston set the national freshman record in 2013 with 40 touchdown passes while throwing for 4,057 yards and 10 interceptions and leading the Seminoles to the national title. His numbers dropped last season after losing his top two running backs, two starting receivers and his starting center. Winston threw for 3,907 yards, with 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions, in 2014.

Winston has since been working with quarterback guru George Whitfield, who has cleaned up the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner’s mechanics.

Retired NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski noted that Winston held the ball a little higher than usual during his wind up and had a shorter stride.

“When his mechanics are right, he’s perfect,” Jaworski said. “He can make every throw without any sort of problem at all.”

Winston knows it, too.

“I felt I did great on every throw,” he said. “You got a tally? I think I had like five incompletions or six. I did great on every throw. I’m a competitor, 100 percent juicy juice. I’m a competitor. When it’s time to play football, I want to play football.”

The New Orleans Saints continued to beef up their secondary Wednesday by signing former New York Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson.  

Wilson’s signing was made official by the team’s Twitter account:

According to Saints senior vice president of communications Greg Bensel, the organization came to terms on a one-year deal with the 27-year-old defensive back:

Wilson was a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft, and he had previously spent all five of his NFL seasons with the Jets. Although he has never missed a game, he also hasn’t lived up to expectations with just three career interceptions.

After playing exclusively under current Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan during his time with the Jets, Wilson will now play for his brother, Rob, in New Orleans, as pointed out by Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News:

Although it can be argued that the former Boise State standout has been a disappointment at the NFL level, he joins a Saints secondary that brought in cornerback Brandon Browner and returns the likes of Keenan Lewis as well as safeties Kenny Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd.

One can only assume that Wilson will be asked to perform primarily in a nickel or dime corner role, and he has a chance to succeed with so much talent around him.

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.

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Jameis Winston hoping to show he’s learned from past mistakes

Jameis Winston has spent much of the past two months crisscrossing the nation, sharpening his quarterback skills and trying to convince NFL teams he’s learned from mistakes made off the field and ready to become the face of a franchise.

A lot of his effort was geared toward the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have the first pick this year’s NFL draft.

Heading into Winston’s pro day at Florida State on Tuesday, by all accounts the 2013 Heisman winner has made a strong impression.

All the Bucs’ decision-makers, head coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jason Licht, and — maybe even more importantly — the Glazer family, which owns the team, appear to be comfortable with Winston’s history of off-the-field issues.

“I realize he has made some mistakes, gotten himself in some situations he would like to do over, but we don’t see anything that we can’t help him with,” Smith said during last week’s NFL spring meetings in Phoenix, Arizona.

“We think that’s behind him, and that’s why we feel comfortable,” the coach added. “You can’t indict young people for some stupid things that they do. We all clean up.”

Winston made it a point to show he’s capable of doing just that, despite his checkered past.

He faced a sexual assault allegation, but was never charged in the alleged incident. He walked out of a supermarket without paying for $32 worth of crab legs and suspended three baseball games, then missed a football game after climbing on a table in the FSU student union and shouting an “offensive and vulgar” comment about women.

Winston hasn’t shied away from questions about his past.

In addition to being interviewed by Tampa Bay and other teams during the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Indiana, the 20-year-old visited and toured the Bucs headquarters in March, meeting with Smith, Licht and the three Glazer brothers who run the team.

Winston also requested — and received — a meeting this month with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in New York.

The young quarterback is represented by The Legacy Agency, whose high-profile football clients include running backs DeMarco Murray and Reggie Bush.

He has said he does not plan to attend the draft in Chicago, instead choosing to stay home in Alabama to enjoy the occasion with family and friends.

Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer told the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times during the meetings in Phoenix that — based on extensive research Tampa Bay has done — the owners would be comfortable with using the No. 1 pick on either Winston or 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, the draft’s other top quarterback prospect.

Smith reiterated his belief that Winston’s off-field missteps have been more the result of the quarterback making immature choices than Winston being a bad kid.

“We are saying that he’s done some things that are not OK, and we don’t feel like in the future he would make those same type of decisions,” the coach said. “You have to look in the eye and feel comfortable with the answers you’re getting. He’s admitted the mistakes he’s made, and I’m one who believes in second chances.”

With everyone signing off on any character questions, that would make it simply a football decision.

Winston has worked this winter in San Diego, California, with private quarterbacks tutor George Whitfield, spent time in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with former San Francisco 49ers and current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, and also showcased his arm and athletic ability at the NFL Combine last month.

Teams will get their next close-up view Tuesday, when Winston will throw to some of his college teammates during Florida State’s pro day in Tallahassee, Florida.

There seems to be no debate, however, over Winston’s potential. He’s a quarterback who completed 66 percent of his passes for nearly 8,000 yards and 65 touchdowns in two college seasons.

And Tampa Bay, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007, absolutely needs a quarterback.

The Bucs, coming off a season in which they went 2-14 and ranked 30th in total offense, haven’t had the first overall pick in the draft since 1987, when they took Vinny Testaverde. He had a long, successful career that didn’t really take off until after the team gave up on him becoming the franchise QB they’ve never had.

Winston was 26-1 as a starter in college, leading Florida State to a national championship as a red-shirt freshman and helping the Seminoles earn a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoffs last season.

Setting the stage for the possible selection of Winston or Mariota, who also visited One Buc Place this month, Tampa Bay released incumbent starter Josh McCown with a year left on the contract he signed as a free agent in 2014.

Paralysis through analysis.

It is an event that occurs when a situation is made so overly complicated by so many details that a decision is never actually made.

That seems to be what many teams have been engaging in so far in the run-up to the 2015 NFL draft. A deluge of information—from college film study, to February’s scouting combine, to pro days—has not made it easier for them to decide which single prospect will best help the organization, but it has kept them on the fence.

Hopefully, with the first round of the draft scheduled for April 30, the overall picture will start to come into sharper focus and NFL front offices will be ready to make confident decisions about whom they’re going to pick. Many players are making a final effort to impress and prove that they deserve to be selected earlier rather than later. Here’s a look at how I think the first round will shake out as well as a look at the fastest-rising prospects on the board:

Fastest-Rising Prospects

Jaelen Strong

Jaelen Strong is by no means the best wide receiver on the board. But in a class that is reasonably deep this year, the Arizona State product has established himself as the third-best pick at the position.

It was unclear where Strong might go early during the draft process, but he sure helped himself at the scouting combine with a respectable 4.44-second 40-yard-dash and a mega 42-inch vertical leap, the top performance at the combine at the wide receiver position.

Strong doesn’t have the polish of Amari Cooper or Kevin White. The scouting report at NFL.com describes Strong as:

Still raw and learning to play the position….Not twitchy or sudden as an athlete. Long-strider who takes a while to build up speed….Rarely gets separation deep against man-to-man. Routes need improvement. Forced to make a substantial amount of contested throws. Corners don’t fear his speed and are able to sit on underneath throws.

Strong caught 82 passes for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. ESPN’s Todd McShay has the Ravens selecting Strong 26th overall, mainly because a top priority of the team is replacing Torrey Smith and because Strong is a superb leaper who times his jumps well to grab 50/50 passes.

Ronald Darby

Ronald Darby is another prospect whose name is surging as a result of a strong performance at the scouting combine. The Florida State cornerback ran a 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard-dash and has parlayed that elite speed into several visits with teams, including with the Panthers (25th pick overall) and the Colts (29th).

Darby’s toughness has come under fire, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, but he still rates Darby as the third-best cornerback prospect in the draft.

Has shown the instincts to play off coverage and the athleticism to play press. It is a bit of a concern that scouts and even opposing coaches have commented on Darby’s toughness, but he doesn’t have very many missed or broken tackles on his docket and his cover skills should be prioritized over his run support regardless. He clearly has starter’s ability at the position.

It is generous to project Darby into the first round, but he might get in. The Panthers did add veteran CB Allan Ball during the offseason, but he is not viewed as a long-term solution. The Colts don’t have the same glaring holes at the position but could use more depth.

Indianapolis would be a great fit for Darby. He’d have the benefit of playing with QB Andrew Luck, who leads an explosive offense and causes opposing teams to have to throw often. Darby is considered much better against the pass than the run.

Kevin White

There is considerable disagreement about who is the better wide receiver in this year’s draft: Kevin White or Amari Cooper?

He is likely to be a top-15 pick regardless, but the difference between one or two draft spots can have a significant impact on a player’s earnings, Darren Rovell of ESPN illustrates by way of another player in the draft:

 It was said by most experts all during the college football season that Cooper was hands down the best receiver in the draft. Apparently, that has been called into question since and White has seen his stock take a real jump thanks to the combine.

White, who stands a prototypical 6’3”, also had a spectacular senior season at West Virginia with 109 catches for 1,147 receiving yards. Those totals ranked third and sixth in the nation, respectively.

Oakland is projected to pick a wide receiver fourth overall, but it is unclear at this point which way the franchise will go between White and Cooper. Mike Mayock of the NFL network says that it’s really all about drafting the player who has the most potential or the one who comes most NFL-ready:

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Jim Caldwell expects bigger role for Lions RB Theo Riddick

Theo Riddick, who has played for the Lions the last two years, seems to be in line for more work now that Reggie Bush is out, MLive reports.

Lions head coach Jim Caldwell expects Riddick to help boost a rushing attack that ranked 28th in 2014.

“We try and give (the ball) to the guys who are going to do something with it, and I think he’s going to be one of those guys who’s going to force us to give him the ball more,” Caldwell said last week at the NFL owners meetings. “I think you’re really going to see him come along.”

Riddick rushed for 51 yards on 20 carries in 2014 and added 316 yards and four touchdowns on 34 catches. In two NFL seasons he has played in 28 games and carried only 29 times for 76 yards, a 2.6-yard average. The longest run of his career went for nine yards.

“I do think that he’s going to improve,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “He has all of the qualities. If you’re smart, if you’re tough, if you’re disciplined, if you have a great work ethic, there’s improvement ahead. And he has all those things, so I think he’s going to improve. And I think he’ll force us to get him the ball a little bit more in some situations.”

Caldwell expects Riddick’s role to grow next season, though that could depend on what kind of tailback the team adds in April’s draft. Riddick is a plus-plus pass catcher out of the backfield, but hasn’t shown any kind of chops yet on the ground — yet.

“I can’t tell you he’s going to carry the ball 50 more times, or I can’t tell you he’s going to get the ball thrown to him 30 more times, until we have a chance to work through this gauntlet. Know what I mean?” Caldwell said. “When we get to the end of the gauntlet, then maybe I can give you a little more of a view. But I’m never going to tell you, ‘Hey, we expect this guy to do this or that.’ What role he plays, how much he’s going to get it, kind of depends on how well we move the ball and how many opportunities we get, what kind of game it is, are we playing great defense, that kind of thing.