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New England Patriots: Exploring Burning Questions About Team's Position Battles

Some Positions Are Seeing Spirited Competition in Camp

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | The 2013 regular-season opener is now less than a month away for the New England Patriots. As the Patriots continue their preseason practices and games, they still have burning questions about their roster that must be answered before Sept. 8, when they square off against the Buffalo Bills in the first game of the season.

The Patriots are in an enviable position with head coach Bill Belichick and starting quarterback Tom Brady being two of the most solid foundation pieces in the league.

While those two give New England a leg up in any given season, here are three position questions that are currently unsettled without obvious answers:

Will the team have a new punter? Incumbent Zoltan Mesko has been very effective during his three years with the team, averaging 44.2 yards per kick. Although he has been productive and was drafted in 2010 (a rarity for punters in the NFL), his job could be in jeopardy.

Mesko is being pushed by undrafted rookie Ryan Allen, who was a two-time Ray Guy winner as the best collegiate punter during his career with Louisiana Tech.

MassLive.com's Nick Underhill reported that Allen has consistently shown a stronger leg this preseason. However, Mesko excels at directional kicking, hang time and pinning the opponent inside the 20-yard line (something he has accomplished with 71 of his 175 career punts).

The decision may come down to money, as Mesko has a cap number of $1.39 million in 2013, while Allen would make the minimum.

Which wide receivers will make the team? Following the departure of star receiver Wes Welker this offseason, the team went out and brought in a passel of veterans and rookies in an effort to overhaul its receiving corps.

Three of those veteran pickups, Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and Lavelle Hawkins, have already been cut. Meanwhile, undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins has emerged with his strong play. While the remaining preseason games will likely determine the final pecking order, predicting who will be left standing after the last cuts is starting to become less hazy.

It looks like the Patriots could go with an interesting mix with of receivers. Free-agent acquisition Danny Amendola is a lock. He's likely to be joined by returner Julian Edelman, with Thompkins and fellow rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce rounding out the group. Special-teamer Matthew Slater would be the de-facto sixth receiver, though he rarely sees the field in that role.

Who will be the starting tight end? In an ideal world, this conversation would start with Pro-Bowler Rob Gronkowski. Unfortunately, he is currently on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list because of offseason surgery.

Until Gronk can return to the field, it looks like the Patriots may utilize a multi-pronged attack at the position.

Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui offer veteran experience and middling skills at blocking and receiving.

Jake Ballard had a wonderful rookie season with the New York Giants in 2011. He accumulated 38 catches and four touchdowns before tearing up his knee in the Super Bowl against New England. He subsequently signed with the Patriots and missed all of last season on injured reserve. The 6-foot-6-inch, 275-pound monster is still making his way back, but his ability to be a difference maker blocking and receiving has NESN.com's Doug Kyed seeing him currently atop the pecking order.

Finally, undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld has made a big splash early in camp. At 6-7 and 260 pounds, he matches Ballard in size, and he has shown talent as a receiver and picking up the complex New England offense, according to WEEI's Christopher Price. He caught just 47 passes during his four-year college career with Nevada, but he could surpass that quickly in the NFL if he continues his development.

Since the Patriots have employed a two-tight end offense over the past several seasons, all four candidates could get utilized while waiting for Gronkowski. With the group possessing varying size and skills, the team could ride the hot hands instead of defining specific roles.

Conclusion: The Patriots will face ongoing questions of one kind or another as the season progresses. Right now, they are trying to get set for their first regular-season game, hoping they make the right decisions along the way. They will need to find answers to these questions about their position battles, as making the right calls could go a long way toward a successful season in 2013.

In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.

You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.

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