Every season, hundreds of dreams are dashed on cut day when NFL teams trim their rosters from 75 to 53.
This year, the New England Patriots surprised many when they released veteran punter Zoltan Mesko in favor of rookie punter Ryan Allen, an undrafted free agent out of Louisiana Tech, according to Field Yates of ESPN Boston.
From the standpoint of on-the-field performance, it's not at all clear that Allen, whose gross average was only about one yard more than Mesko's, actually outplayed Mesko. This is especially true given that one of the major duties of most NFL punters is to hold on field goals and extra points, which Allen did not do in college.
On the other hand, from an economics standpoint, this decision is much easier to understand, even if you don't agree with it.
First, there's the issue of rational actors. Economic theory often assumes that people make rational decisions: For example, if a person has a choice between buying a fresh apple for 25 cents and buying a rotten one for 30 cents, the person will choose the fresh apple.
Somehow, that didn't happen with Ryan Allen. Despite being the first collegiate punter to win the Ray Guy Award two years in a row, he went undrafted, while two other punters (the Minnesota Vikings' Jeff Locke and the Detroit Lions' Sam Martin) were drafted. Needless to say, head coach Bill Belichick decided Allen was worth a look.
Second, there's the issue of marginal utility. Utility is the pleasure or benefit derived from a particular good or situation. It's difficult to quantify and worse highly subjective. For example, a person who prefers movies to music might find more utility in seeing a movie than in buying MP3s, while a music fan might find more utility in the MP3s.
Bill Belichick puts a high premium on kicking: He richly rewarded Stephen Gostkowski in 2010 with one of the largest kicker contracts in NFL history.
On the other hand, punting does not seem a high priority for the Patriots coach. Of course, that may be because the Patriots rarely punt. According to Football Outsiders, New England has finished in the bottom five in terms of punts per drive every season since 2007.
Mesko was slated to make $1.3 million this year, while Allen, as an undrafted free agent, will make just $405,000. It appears that Belichick decided that the $900,000 saved by going with Allen was more valuable to the team than any difference in talent, such as Mesko's holding ability.
Finally, there's the issue of opportunity cost. Resources, both in terms of dollars and roster spots, are limited in the NFL. In the case of Mesko versus Allen, one last factor is worth thinking about: the future.
Mesko was slated to become an unrestricted free agent in 2014. As an undrafted free agent, Allen is signed to a three-year deal that cannot be renegotiated. Besides the extra dollars to be paid in 2013, releasing Allen would mean the risk of losing Allen and having to replace Mesko in free agency.
The Patriots went through this once before in 2005, when they had to choose between Adam Vinatieri and Robbie Gould. Ultimately, they chose Vinatieri, and Gould became the kicker for the Chicago Bears.
Vinatieri left a year later, leaving the Pats to find his replacement. Finding themselves in a similar situation this year, it appears they chose the future over the present.
Mesko, whom The Wall Street Journal once called "The NFL's Most Interesting Man," should recover from this setback. If he doesn't sign on with another NFL team soon, he can always fall back on a business career: He spent the 2011 lockout interning with a financial services firm in Philadelphia.
Allen can and should celebrate his success in earning an NFL roster spot, but he shouldn't rest on his laurels. After all, he may find himself in Mesko's shoes sooner than he thinks.