It was surprising when Bill Belichick brought another punter into New England Patriots training camp this season to compete with Zoltan Mesko. Mesko, entering his fourth season in the NFL, seemed like a sure thing to make the squad given how valuable he was to the team’s success on special teams. He was by far the best punter in a long line of mediocre ones over the Belichick era — an era that included the likes of Ken Walter, Todd Sauerbrun, and Josh Miller.
This other guy at camp, Ryan Allen, seemed to be just another rookie free agent who would really have to impress the coaching staff to get up the depth chart. It was not out of the ordinary for Belichick to give another special teams player a look at camp. When Adam Vinatieri was in New England, Robbie Gould spent one summer in Foxboro, played well, got cut, and has been the kicker for the Chicago Bears ever since.
That was the vibe again with Allen this summer. Belichick was nice enough to just give Allen look, they would release him, and Allen would hook on with another team after solid play in training camp. Only Allen made the squad and Mesko was the one to get cut. Mesko quickly signed with another team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. The reported motive of the transaction was that keeping Mesko would hit the salary cap for over $1 million and Allen would only cost the Patriots a cool $400,000.
Since that transaction in early September, Mesko has been cut by the Steelers and Allen has made Belichick look like, well, a genius. Allen was a two-time Ray Guy award winner in at Louisiana Tech (the only punter ever to win the hardware back-to-back), and his shining moment with the big boys came in the Patriots’ win over Denver Broncos on Sunday night. Allen’s high, yet not-booming left-footed kicks caused confusion in the whipping Foxboro winds early to the dangerous Trindon Holliday, and Holliday’s ensuing muff in the second quarter made interim coach Jack Del Rio insert Wes Welker into punt return duties. We all know how that played out.
After the 34-31 win coach Belichick, always a sucker for top-notch special teams play, praised his rookie punter. Belichick also could have given himself some praise for his decision to keep Allen in town over Mesko (in what was perhaps the biggest shock of training camp cuts) for it has worked out to his team’s favor. Allen’s 46.0 yards per punt average is 13th in the NFL and his net of 39.7 yards per punt is better than Mesko’s in 2012 (37.9 per punt). The rookie has also, quietly, done his due diligence as the holder on Stephen Gostkowski’s kicks the last few games, as several Danny Aiken snaps have been off-kilter. Allen has bailed out Aiken and has been a considerable spark plug to all facets of the kicking game. He is now a major reason why the Patriots are 8-3 and AFC favorites.