FOXBOROUGH — Not every training camp battle is front and center. Take, for instance, the competition at punter, right now a prolonged battle between veteran Zoltan Mesko, an affable and humorous presence in the locker room, and Ryan Allen, a strong-footed rookie out of Louisiana Tech.
Arguing the merits of one punter over the other can sail right past the casual fan, but on a team so invested in doing special teams right, it’s imperative to explore this position battle.
Through three preseason games, Mesko and Allen have gone back and forth with their opportunities, with Mesko getting the majority of punt attempts.
Mesko, born in Romania and raised in Ohio, was picked by the Patriots in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. He has the second-highest punting average in Patriots history (44.2 yards). In three preseason games, he has managed to pin two of 10 punts inside the 20.
Allen was undrafted out of Louisiana Tech after being a first-team All-American in 2012. Born in Salem, Ore., he spent his first two college seasons at Oregon State before transferring.
While other rookie free agents on the Patriots have already fallen off the competitive map, Allen is still prominent among bubble players. In three games, he has five punts for a 47.8-yard average. His first outing was rough, as he outkicked the coverage against the Eagles. But he’s settled in nicely in the past two games, getting good hang time while allowing for his teammates to make plays.
“As far as the competition goes, and going back and forth, I feel like that’s the right way to do it because we both stay focused throughout the whole game and that’s what it takes during the regular season to stay focused throughout the whole game,” Mesko said earlier this week. “You can’t just go for a half as a specialist and then kinda shut it down, which a lot of teams do, but I feel like you get some good mental reps even staying in the game like that.
“Everything I do on the sideline is OCD to stay in the game.”
Both Mesko and Allen, who work closely with each other, know that there is a job on the line. But both keep their heads down, working to prove their worth. Neither would hint at what will give them an edge.
“There are certain thresholds you have to meet,” Mesko conceded. “But in the end, you have to be yourself. You can’t play anyone else’s game. That’s when you get in trouble, when you try to be something you’re not.”
For Allen, it’s the company line. He’s working to improve every day because he knows Mesko is an all-around solid punter.
“From a competition standpoint, I’m only focused on what I’m here to do and to get as consistent as possible in all phases,” he said. “Whether that’s flipping the field, whether that’s pinning them in the 20. You need to be well-rounded in whatever position you are. You can’t just be a good field goal kicker and an average kickoff guy, you need to represent all phases of what you do well.
“And I think that’s what sets aside veterans from newcomers and guys just entering the league. They’ve shown that they can be consistent and reliable in multiple different aspects of what they do. And that’s our goal, is to be as consistent and fine point as we possibly can. And that’s what I try to do.”
Allen has just a few more days to prove his worth, or at least prove that he can be better than Mesko. Asked what he thinks about when he goes home at night, his answer was telling.
“It’s everything. It’s mechanical,” Allen said. “You can’t worry about results.”
Five things to consider before the cuts come
1. Will the Patriots place Rob Gronkowski on the PUP list? If they do, they open up a roster spot for either one more tight end or a player they feel needs more time to develop. Either way, Gronkowski’s status probably will be evaluated all the way up to Aug. 31 when the team has to trim the roster to 53 players.
2. What will they do with Armond Armstead? The defensive end’s contract, a three-year deal for a base salary of $1.485 million, is guaranteed this season ($655,000) with $250,000 toward his 2014 base salary guaranteed as well. He’s on the non-football injury/illness list and has been absent from football activities during training camp after going through surgery to treat an infection.
3. Are they ready to cut ties with high draft choices who are underperforming? Tavon Wilson (2012 second-round pick) and Jake Bequette (2012 third-round pick) haven’t exactly been magnificent in their short tenure. But does that mean the Patriots should give up on them? Wilson is the fifth wheel in a revamped safety group and Bequette is the fifth or sixth defensive end in a group that features two every-down players (Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich). The Patriots have tough choices with both.
4. How many offensive linemen can the Patriots go with? Injuries can quickly deplete any team of its depth. The Patriots know that well, with Marcus Cannon and Dan Connolly both missing extended time this offseason. With both out for stretches, tackle Will Svitek ended up playing guard for the first time in his career. With these three, the Patriots have players who can play multiple guard positions, center, and both tackles. But did the injuries scare Bill Belichick enough to warrant at least a few extra bodies on the roster? We’ll see.
5. Does the team need Leon Washington? As a kickoff returner, he’s one of the best all-time. He’s tied with Joshua Cribbs with eight return touchdowns for the most in NFL history. He’s less than a year removed from a Pro Bowl and three years removed from an All-Pro team. But for some reason, he still appears to be on the bubble with the Patriots, getting fewer and fewer attempts as the preseason has rolled along. (He didn’t get one return in Thursday’s game against the Lions.) Again, Washington is in a position where he’s fighting for a job with people across multiple positions. Meanwhile, wide receiver Josh Boyce has three kickoff returns for 73 yards (24.3-yard average). Washington has three for 66 yards (22-yard average).
Tweet of the week
Tom Brady took time to visit the University of Michigan football team. This is one particularly awesome photo.
— Michigan Football (@umichfootball) August 22, 2013
Boston.com user “washedashore” writes on 5 takeaways from the Patriots-Lions game:
Some guys were playing for roster spots. Bolden may have played himself off the roster, but he will find work. Wilson and the fullback had to impress and did not convince. The puzzle piece is Mallett. Looked for more poise and execution, but he was outplayed by backup for Detroit. He looks like a guy who may have hit a plateau. Does he really have more of an upside that Tebow? Is Tebow less expensive. Not feeling the love for Mallett.
Brandon Bolden has to be the most talented bubble player on the roster. If you recall, he had the fumbles last preseason, too. At the time, he was fighting for a spot and still made the roster as the fifth running back. He could be the fifth guy again. As far as Ryan Mallett, he looked uncomfortable all night behind the team’s second line. I’ll just give him that.
What’s to come
— On Tuesday, Aug. 27, NFL teams must pare their rosters to 75 by 4 p.m. EST. Live coverage on Boston.com all day.
— The Patriots will play their final preseason game Thursday, Aug. 29, against the New York Giants. One more meaningless outing. One more tryout for the fringe players and practice squad prospects.
— On Saturday, Aug. 31, teams must reduce rosters to 53 players by 6 p.m.
— Also by Aug. 31, the Patriots will have to decide what to do with Rob Gronkowski (back) and Armond Armstead (infection).
— On Sunday, Sept. 8, the Patriots will open the regular season at the Buffalo Bills at 1 p.m. That’s 16 days from now.
Zuri Berry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.