FOXBOROUGH — Of the 13 rookies the Patriots are expected to have on their active roster for Sunday’s season opener against the Bills, the biggest surprise might be the punter.
Not entirely because of who Ryan Allen is, but because of the player he replaced. Zoltan Mesko, though far from being the face of the Patriots franchise, had carved out a considerable niche in his three seasons: dependable punter, locker room jokester, charitable titan. Rarely, if ever, did Mesko miss an opportunity to lend his support to a civic cause.
But competition is part of everyday life in the NFL, and when the Patriots brought Allen to training camp, few fans initially noticed. When he kept hanging around, more fans noticed. Now that he has made the team, bumping Mesko, everyone will notice when Allen takes the field in Buffalo.
“I always knew I had the ability. It’s just a matter of opportunity, and when you get an opportunity, you have to compete and make the best of it,” said Allen, a left-footed kicker, like Mesko.
“The biggest thing for me is to not compare yourself to another person, because everybody is different, everyone is going to bring something different to the table. I don’t want to be a rookie. I want to be someone who can come in and impact the game in a positive way.”
It’s been one week since Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff made final roster cuts out of training camp, getting to the league-mandated 53 players last Saturday. Tim Tebow was the roster decision everyone was discussing, but he would have been a third-string quarterback, rarely used. The decision to keep Allen over Mesko will have a direct impact, because not only will Allen handle punting duties, he’ll also be the holder on extra points and field goal attempts. That’s a role he’s never filled in a game before.
“We thought that was the best thing for our football team,” Belichick said Friday, before the team’s final practice leading into Sunday’s game. “Zoltan did a good job for us, but this year’s competition is this year’s competition, and based on all the things that we took into consideration, we felt like Ryan deserved the job.
“But it was very competitive, and Zoltan showed that he can kick in the league, and he still is kicking in the league, so we were fortunate to have that kind of competition at that position.”
Mesko was scooped up by the Steelers Monday, two days after being released.
The Allen-Mesko battle didn’t bring nearly the same scrutiny as some of the other positions — running back comes to mind — but that was probably because most assumed Mesko would win the job.
It’s safe to say that money was most certainly part of the decision. Mesko stood to make $1.323 million this season, which would have been his fourth with the team and the last before he became a free agent. Allen will make $405,000, the rookie minimum, and signed the standard three-year contract that’s given to undrafted rookies.
Was the difference in salary a larger factor than on-field performance? Perhaps, because Mesko had better statistics in the four preseason games, outkicking Allen in each of the final three. Mesko punted 15 times in the preseason, nearly twice as many as Allen, who had eight kicks. Mesko’s average was slightly better (45.2 to 45.0), his net average was better (38.1 to 32.5), and his long (57) was a yard longer than Allen’s best.
So how did Allen win the job?
“I couldn’t tell you that,” said Allen. “I didn’t make that decision, that’s on the coaching staff. All I know is I’m just focused on working on my craft, getting it as smooth and as consistent as possible, and helping this team do well this season.”
That’s not to say Allen arrived at camp unheralded. Despite not being drafted, he was a two-time winner of the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best collegiate punter — the first player to win it in back-to-back seasons — and was a unanimous first-team All-American in 2012, when he averaged 48.0 yards per kick for Louisiana Tech. He never had a punt blocked in college.
Will that translate to the professional game? We’re about to find out. Just as interesting will be how well Allen handles holding duty whenever Stephen Gostkowski lines up to kick. Neither Allen nor Gostkowski sound worried.
“I know the technique, I know the form,” said Allen. “It’s just a matter of getting in synch with the kicker and the snapper, and we’ve been working all through OTAs and fall camp, so it’s all about making everything smooth between the three of us.
“[Long snapper] Danny [Aiken] and Steve were using Zoltan for the past three years, so it’s a matter of getting comfortable with someone new. They’ve been very supportive, they’re helpful.”
Gostkowski, who had Mesko in the locker next to him for three years, a spot now held by Allen, said, “It’s a situation I’ve been in before. My rookie year I had three different holders, had Matt Cassel hold and he’d never held in a game and we did well, so you just lean on past experiences.
“[Allen’s] worked hard, and that’s all you can ask. He’s a professional athlete and he’s obviously very talented and it’s something he’s going to figure out.”
Allen has praised Mesko for the help the veteran gave a determined rookie trying to take his job. Now that he has, the focus changes. During training camp, Allen was the unknown underdog. Suddenly, he’s the Patriots punter.
“This is a performance business and there are expectations,” said Allen. “You’ve got to perform well if you want to stay here, that’s what’s most important to me. I knew everything was going to happen for a reason, everything was going to fall in place eventually. You know what? It all worked out.”