Projecting Jake Ballard's Role and Fit with New England Patriots

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Projecting Jake Ballard's Role and Fit with New England Patriots
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Ex-New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard was claimed off waivers by the New England Patriots on June 12. Yet due to injury, the 24-year-old faces an uphill battle in 2012.

During the Giants' victory against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, Ballard tore his left ACL. According to Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe, the tight end underwent ACL and microfracture surgery this offseason. With an average recovery period of nine months, Ballard is unlikely to return before November—if at all.

After failing his physical with the Giants, the team waived Ballard on June 11 in hopes that he would go unclaimed by another NFL team and land on the squad's injured reserve, cites the Globe's Bedard.

That didn't pan out, as the Patriots snagged Ballard and his one-year, $540,000 contract.

The move ruffled the feathers of Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, reports USA TODAY's Nate Davis:

"Discourage is a minor description," Coughlin told reporters. "Very disappointing."

Coach Coughlin should be disappointed about losing his top tight end. He waived a guy who tortured the Patriots during their 2011 regular season meeting on November 6. In that game, Ballard caught four balls for 67 yards and a touchdown en route to a Giants victory.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick had an "If you can't beat them, join them" mentality when claiming Ballard. The tight end's ability to perplex Belichick strikes resemblance to another current Patriot—Wes Welker.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Ballard's torn ACL cut his Super Bowl short and put his future in doubt.

Needless to say, that under-the-radar Welker move turned out okay.

Ballard provides the Patriots with another capable blocker, who's also a proficient receiver. According to Pro Football Focus, Ballard was on the field for more blocking plays than pass plays last season. However, the undrafted Ohio State product still caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 2011.

Ballard will tag on with fellow tight ends Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells and Tyler Urban on New England's roster.

With an onslaught of tight ends under contract, where does the injury-hampered Ballard fit in?

"Ballard, at 6 feet 6 inches, 265 pounds and possessing 4.82 speed, would be a big-body “Y’’ tight end in the Patriots’ system like Gronkowski," said the Boston Globe's Bedard.

Make no mistake, Ballard is not Rob Gronkowski—no one is. He will be limited at best in 2012 and hasn't been a great red-zone target like Gronkowski has. But he's still a quality player.

The Patriots aren't exactly in need of another starting-caliber tight end. Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have that area covered, as they racked up 169 combined catches in 2011. However, for Ballard's sake, the fight for the No. 3 tight end job is one to keep an eye on.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez lessen the Patriots' need for Ballard.

Daniel Fells is a veteran backup who is known more for blocking than pass catching. The six-year pro has recorded 88 catches for 1,001 yards and eight scores in his career. He could be Ballard's toughest competition.

In addition to Fells is West Virginia's undrafted rookie Tyler Urban who should factor into the mix. However, his career with the Mountaineers wasn't all that impressive: 37 receptions, 429 yards and five touchdowns. Due to a lack of experience in the Patriots' system, Urban looks to be more of a practice squad player at this point.

Bo Scaife, who was a threat to Ballard's job, has been released, reports ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss via Twitter. Scaife has hauled in 251 catches for 2,383 yards and 12 touchdowns since entering the league in 2005.

The fact that he was signed on June 7 and released 11 days later indicates that Ballard's presence has changed the scheme of things.

The training camp and preseason performances of Fells and Urban will decide Ballard's fate for the 2012 campaign. If one of these depth players becomes a front-runner for the third tight end spot, then Ballard's value on the team will diminish.

Because of Ballard's medical misfortune, he will likely find himself on one of two lists: physically unable to perform or injured reserve.

If Ballard is placed on the PUP list, he would be exempt from September's 53-man roster cut-down. He would miss the first six weeks of the season and could wait until Week 13 to return to the active roster.

Where will Jake Ballard begin the 2012 season?

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The Patriots have used the PUP list to their advantage in year's past. In 2011, the team stored defensive linemen Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick, as well as running back Kevin Faulk on the list, per ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg. All of whom returned to the team and avoided injured reserve.

If New England sees no use for Ballard in 2012 and his health is not progressing as fast as anticipated, injured reserve is another possible destination. This action would effectively end Ballard's season, giving him time to fully heal.

Heading into the final year of his rookie contract, Ballard will be a restricted free agent in 2013. The Patriots would have the first shot at re-signing him. Perhaps that is the Patriots' plan for the injured player—an addition for the future.

It's a wait-and-see approach with Ballard. Unable to practice, it's impossible to judge how well he will mesh into the system. Ultimately, it's a low-risk, high-reward acquisition that might pay dividends this season or next.

When healthy, Ballard is far better than a third-string tight end. Albeit in Foxboro, that's precisely what he is. Ballard won't climb the depth chart unless one of his teammates is hit with an injury.

Currently, Ballard has two strikes against him: He's not ready to play, and he's occupying a place on New England's 90-man roster.

Odds are, 2013 will be the year he makes his mark.

 

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