In the 2011 offseason, the New York Giants made a move that some thought to be extremely foolish—letting longtime tight end Kevin Boss walk. While they had depth at the position, no one thought any of their other tight ends could contribute as much as Boss did in his four years with the team.
Instead, Jake Ballard more than filled the considerable hole Boss' absence left in the Giants offense. In 2011, Ballard had 38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns—more yards than Boss had in any of his seasons with the Giants.
He caught the game-winning touchdown in the Giants' regular-season meeting with the New England Patriots and will likely be called upon to make another clutch play when the two teams face each other in this Sunday's Super Bowl.
With the Patriots' Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski attracting the most attention at the tight end position in this game, Ballard's under-the-radar status is both beneficial to him and to his team.
Unlike his Patriot counterparts, he has the luxury of not dominating the media's discussion and can instead focus on the task at hand—playing his part to bring his team a Super Bowl championship.
Much has been said about the mismatch that Gronkowski and Hernandez are likely to pose to the Giants secondary, however Ballard's name has rarely come up when discussing how the Giants' receiving strategy can exploit the Patriots' porous defense.
It's not just Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham the Patriots defenders need to worry about—Ballard is a significant threat in his own right.
His hulking, 6'6" frame isn't the fastest on the field, but his size and strength make him difficult to tackle, especially for the Patriots' undersized secondary. There's no chance a player like Julian Edelman will succeed in bringing him down.
Ballard is a sleeper, as much as a starting offensive skill player can be in the NFL's biggest game. His greatest strength is the ability for defenses to forget about him until it's too late.
If he can get involved as a sneaky receiving option in two-running back sets or find himself uncovered while the Patriots' resources are dedicated to covering the Giants' big-play receivers, Ballard has more than a good chance to end the day with three catches, 50 yards and a pivotal Giants touchdown.