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Mesko adjusting to life in the NFL

08.03.10 at 1:52 pm ET
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FOXBORO — There was a lot to like about the Patriots’ fifth-round selection of Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko.

One of the more interesting players in the draft, Mesko’s journey to the NFL is far dissimilar the traditional path many take. Despite his intrigue in coming from a dangerous area in Romania and then moving to the states, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the Patriots landed themselves a fine young player at a position that has historically plagued them.

Back in February we wrote about how Mesko could be the guy that ends the team’s run of bad punters, and now that he is in the fold and the only punter in training camp, all eyes are on what the rookie can do on the field. Mesko’s main focus is proving that he can simply impress without focusing on the attention that comes with being the starter.

“These coaches, they don’t put it out there that anything’s guaranteed,” Mesko said of not having company on the depth chart. “Not having the complacency develop is key. Just like [Stephen Gostowski] was telling me, he doesn’t become complacent even though he’s been the starter for four years. If you have that complacent mindset, that’s when things start falling apart.”

As for adjusting to a new level of playing, any first impressions and time to soak in the surroundings seem to already be a thing of the past with Mesko.

“It seems like I’ve been here for three weeks instead of five days with the guys,” Mesko said.

Second-year special teams coach Scott O’Brien liked what he saw from the punter in his time at Michigan. Often being forced into scramble punt (punting on the move) scenarios, Mesko has pleased thus far as the team works with him to get into a groove punting conventionally.

“In Zoltan’s case, there was enough — I mean, a lot of film — where it was conventional punting. The scramble punts is just a situation we all have. [There are] certain situations that they’ve never done in college and we have to work on. Obviously, of the things they didn’t do in college that they need to do for us, but we have to do it. In Zoltan’s case, that’s one thing he’s done and has worked hard on ever since he’s been here.”

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Cunningham eager to answer call

08.03.10 at 1:14 pm ET
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Patriots rookie OLB Jermaine Cunningham. (AP photo)

Patriots rookie OLB Jermaine Cunningham. (AP photo)

FOXBORO — The Patriots had needs on the depth chart that were quite apparent as the 2009-10  season came to and as players shuffled teams in the offseason. Two areas that seemed require the most urgent help were the tight end position and the pass rush.

While the team added a veteran in Alge Crumpler and highly touted prospects in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to shore up the tight ends, in hindsight, the same type of attention wasn’t given to improving a group of pass rushers that finished last season 23rd in the NFL.

The Patriots went after a defensive end with a knack for getting after the quarterback in Florida’s Jermaine Cunningham in the second round, a player many expected to see time in the rotation at outside linebacker with Tully Banta-Cain and the re-signed Derrick Burgess. However, with all reports indicating that Burgess has decided to retire, it may be show time for the rookie earlier than some expected. Considering he is adjusting to a new league, playbook, and position, the notion may be scary for the youngster and Patriots fans alike, but Cunningham has handled training camp well this far as he tries to fit in with the starters.

With his new position at outside linebacker thinner, it’s only natural to think that at this point Cunningham may be a rookie that sees considerable playing time early on. Some may wonder whether or not he’ll be ready for such a role, but there’s no doubt in Cunningham’s mind that he can make an impact.

“I’ve always felt like that, but it’s a long time from Game 1,” Cunningham said. “I’m just out here trying to get better.”

Cunningham, who is listed by the Patriots at a perceivably accurate height of 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, has work to do like any other rookie. Though his process may be more complicated by having to take on the responsibilities as a stand-up pass rusher that he is not accustomed to, Cunningham doesn’t mind. After Tuesday’s walkthrough, he stayed on the field with fellow Florida product and 10-year veteran Gerard Warren working on technique.

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Training camp report from Tuesday morning session

08.03.10 at 12:01 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Nothing happened on the Patriots’ practice field anywhere near as noteworthy as Tuesday’s news of Brett Favre retiring, so until the afternoon, football fans may want to focus on the Vikings for a few hours. The Patriots had a walkthrough, with players in shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps. All drills were done at half-speed, but check back this afternoon for the full report on the afternoon session.

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O’Brien hoping for improved kick return

08.03.10 at 11:54 am ET
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FOXBORO — Patriots special teams coach Scott O’Brien spoke to the media Tuesday morning prior to the first of two practices the team had scheduled. Entering his second season on the job, O’Brien comes into the 2010 campaign with a couple of additions to the return game in first-round pick Devin McCourty and a healthy Brandon Tate. The Patriots also have a new punter and undoubted fan favorite in Zoltan Mesko.

On the subject of improving the special teams, it was quite obvious where O’Brien’s priorities currently lie.

“I would say the overall return game, kickoff returner, but it’s like everything else. When you’ve done this for a long time, things constantly change. We change as coaches, schematics change, rules change, and you’re always trying to be sound of what you’re doing, but you always have to be able to break down segments, either schematically, by players, [or] whatever, to find out where you can improve on everything,” O’Brien said. “You can be the best in the National Football League, and you’re still always trying to improve. Looking at that, it’s a combination of we’re always breaking down, trying to get a better scheme, what are we seeing more now relative to the years before? How are we matching up personnel? How did the change in the rules last year with the wedge really affect us? That kind of thing.”

So, what will go into boosting a kick return game that finished 15th in the league last season with an average of 22.9 yards per return?

“Well, there’s two things. All the returners in this league, they’re all good. They’re only only as good as those other 10 guys (on the kick return unit). Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure there are,” O’Brien said. “You know, the explosive guys, the playmakers, but that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for that guy that not only has the physical skills, the eye control, the instincts of setting up blocks and that type of thing and the speeds that make explosive plays, but it’s the other guys that are giving him that opportunity to get started. There’s a combination, and young returners really grow.”

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Florio on D&C: Jets might not even make playoffs

08.03.10 at 11:16 am ET
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Mike Florio

Mike Florio founder Mike Florio joined the Dennis & Callahan show Tuesday morning to discuss the extremely competitive AFC East, why the Jets may not be as good as everyone is predicting, and why the Patriots need to sign Tom Brady.

Regarding the Jets, he explained,  ”I just think that it’s going to be a very tall order for the New York Jets to be competitive this year. They welcomed the bull’s-eye that’s on their back, and I don’t know if that’s going to play that well.”

Following are highlights of the interview. To hear the full interview visit the Dennis & Callahan audio on demand page.

Where do you see the Jets finishing this season?

I think they’ll have a very difficult season. I just don’t know that they planned very well how this was going to play out. They finished strong last year, and were just kind of in the right place at the right time. They beat a Colts team that wasn’t trying to win, they beat the Bengals back-to-back, that pretty much everyone pretty much everyone figured out by the end of the season. They won in San Diego in the playoffs, who hasn’t done that? And now all of a sudden they’re a great team, and they go out and bring in a bunch of veteran players with big personalities who may or may not jell.

They have a guy in camp, or not in camp [Darrelle Revis], who wants more money. I just think that it’s going to be a very tall order for the New York Jets to be competitive this year. They welcomed the bulls-eye that’s on their back, and I don’t know if that’s going to play that well. They were a mediocre team in November last year and into December. I think there’s a good chance they don’t even make the playoffs.

What is the possibility of Aaron Shobel joining the Patriots?

It’s very confusing right now. And I think that haze of confusion is the overall atmosphere in Buffalo at this point. The general manager [of the Bills] Buddy Nix said they are not going to let him go, even though there was a report that the Bills were going to release him. They could be trying to trade him, it’s been a big subject over the offseason, will he or won’t he retire. The Texans are interested.

I think maybe what’s going on is that the Bills are trying to get some value, instead of just walking away and cutting him. If he retires then they still hold his rights. If they trade him then they get something for him. If they cut him, he becomes eligible at that point to sign with any other team. It looks like maybe they figured out that’s what he’s up to. And maybe he’s trying to pull a Brett Favre here, get out of Buffalo and go play for a contender. And that’s only going to happen if there’s a draft pick or a player who changes hands.

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Training Camp Report from Monday night practice session

08.02.10 at 9:45 pm ET
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FOXBORO — There was no Wes Welker on Monday night on the first Patriots appearance on their brand new Field Turf inside Gillette Stadium. But there was certainly plenty of Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss, much to the delight of the thousands of fans who turned out.

The two have become nearly attached at the hip on the practice field since the two started working together in the 2007 season. Monday night was no different and it was clear that their timing was still there.

Brady connected with Moss on a pair of touchdown passes in 11-on-11 two-minute drills. The first came on a patented curl route in the back of the end zone, with Brady zipping it over the middle. Brady also found Moss on a hitch and go to the right corner for six. That didn’t include a sweet 50-yard TD strike from Brady to Moss in a special five-on-five secondary drill for quarterbacks designed to make the quarterback read the secondary.

Brady also found Rob Gronkowski, who made a nice TD catch while Steve Gostkowski just missed on a 52-yard field goal but connected from inside 45 as the team worked on last-second, no timeout field goal situations.

Welker, who was taken off the PUP list on Sunday and returned to practice this weekend for the Patriots, was held out of full contact drills and scrimmage game situations, presumably as a precaution on the new turf. He was in full pads for the abbreviated practice on Monday morning.

Welker was one of 14 players on the roster not in attendance for the practice event for season ticket holders and Foxboro residents. In addition to Welker, holdout Logan Mankins, LB Derrick Burgess, the injured Gary Guyton, Nick Kaczur, Ty Warren, Ron Brace, Mike Wright, Matthew Slater, Jonathan Wilhite, Bret Lockett, Thomas Clayton, Terrance Johnson and Myron Pryor did not participate.

It was the team’s first formal practice inside the stadium since a brand new Field Turf was installed, designed to be softer and more like natural grass than its predecessor. Fans attending also got a glimpse of the brand new high definition video board in the South end zone, which ran for the entire 90 minutes of the practice.

One of the biggest cheers of the night was reserved for owner Robert Kraft, who hand-delivered a ball to a fan who was forced to give back a ball that was thrown into the stands by rookie Aaron Hernandez after the tight end made a TD catch in a drill.

Clearly punter Zoltan Mesko out of Michigan is developing a cult following among Pats fans. His name was chanted several times and he rewarded the masses with five consecutive booming punts of 50-plus yards. He also handled holding responsibilities flawlessly for Gostkowski.

Read More: New England Patriots, Patriots, Randy Moss, Tom Brady

Caserio taking different approach this camp

08.02.10 at 5:29 pm ET
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Patriots Training Camp Opener

Nick Caserio speaks at Patriots' training camp on Sunday. (John Vu/ photo)

FOXBORO — During last year’s training camp, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio was a ubiquitous presence on the field. Almost every day throughout camp, Caserio was on the field and interacting with the players — especially the wide receivers — as much as any one of the assistants coaches.

This year, it’s a different story — through the first week, Caserio has spent most of his time standing on the fringes of the practice field and only occasionally engaging a member of the support staff. Instead, it’s been de facto offensive coordinator Billy O’Brien and wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea hanging out with the receivers.

Caserio said that because he’s been on the sidelines this season during camp, it doesn’t necessarily mean that his role within the franchise has changed.

“That’s probably the biggest change, that I’m not on the field conducting the drills,” he said. “I’d say there’s some interaction. I think it’s just looking at it from a different perspective, but the things that you’re looking for I wouldn’t say are too drastically different. The biggest thing is kind of that you see more of a big picture instead of one position that you’re focused on when you’re working on a day-to-day basis with them.”

Caserio, who is entering his third full season as New England’s director of player personnel, said removing himself from the drills helps when it comes to developing an understanding of “the big picture.”

“Just like a player, I take the philosophy that the more you can learn [and] the more you can understand, the better off we’re all going to be,” Caserio said.

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