He missed all of 2012 after tearing his ACL in Super Bowl XLVI, and that could be why it took so long for Arizona to sign the three-year veteran; he may not have been healthy enough to pass a physical until Monday.
How does the 25-year-old out of Ohio State fit into coach Bruce Arians’ vertical offense?
In a word: Perfectly.
But you know I’m not into the whole brevity thing—that’s too easy. I went back and watched every one of Ballard’s receptions and all of his dropped passes from the 2011 season, the only season in which he has played.
What I got from his play is that not only is he a solid route runner, but he has the ability to make tough catches over the middle and create separation despite lacking ideal speed.
That is something the Cardinals have sorely missed from the tight end position in 2013. Neither Jim Dray nor Rob Housler have been able to get open in Carson Palmer’s happy zone (over the middle), and the results have been hilarious.
Through eight games this season, Dray and Housler have a combined 26 receptions for 222 yards (8.5 yards per reception) and 1 touchdown. Those numbers are comparable to Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who has 26 receptions for 225 yards (8.7 YPC) and a score.
What’s funny about that? Pettigrew is considered a disappointment in Detroit.
Do not mistake Ballard for a speedy tight end, because he certainly is not that. He is a pure possession receiver who makes catches anywhere, takes big hits and gets right back up, as you will see illustrated here.
Let’s review some statistics and get a look at some of his highlights from 2011.
Jake Ballard: Deep Threat
Arians likes moving tight ends around on the line of scrimmage. Rarely do we see Dray or Housler in the same spot two plays in a row, but Ballard is a prototypical end-of-the-line tight end. He is not one to split out wide, but he was used as an H-back in New York—we also know Arians loves placing tight ends in the backfield as a lead blocker and receiver.
While Ballard will line up at faux fullback as a run-blocker and occasional receiving option to the flats, he will do most of his damage from the traditional tight end spot running traditional routes.
In 2011, he had 38 receptions for 604 yards (15.9 YPC) and four TD. Considering he is not a speedy tight end, his near-16.0 yards-per-catch average is amazing.
In fact, Ballard was No. 1 in yards per catch that season among tight ends with at least 30 receptions.
|Top TE Yards-Per-Catch Average, 2011 Season (min 30 rec)|
|Pro Football Reference|
As you can see, 34.21 percent of his receptions (13-of-38) resulted in gains of at least 20 yards—his percentage ranked second among the same 10 tight ends.
Jake Ballard: Tough as Nails
Catching passes over the middle is tough. To do so successfully, one must have a big, solid body that can withstand multiple crushing blows and big, strong hands to help hang on when a menacing defender arrives milliseconds after the catch.
This is Ballard’s wheelhouse and is a major reason he caught as many long passes as he did in 2011. We will look now at two plays that perfectly embody Ballard’s strengths as a tight end.
These plays both come from the same game—a Week 9 win over the New England Patriots in which he caught the game-winning touchdown with under a minute to play.
The first came on a 3rd-and-9 play early in the game. Quarterback Eli Manning faked a handoff to his running back, and Ballard initially stayed in as a blocker to sell the play-action fake.
But he soon released and flashed open over the middle, where Manning hit him with a pass. As he turned upfield, however, Patriots middle linebacker Brandon Spikes met him with an angry shoulder pad. Ballard was stopped in his tracks and hit the Gillette Field turf hard in the process.
He did not gain a first down, but he did hang on to the ball.
The second play was a 30-yard reception on a seam route in the third quarter that eventually led to a Lawrence Tynes field goal.
Free safety James Ihedigbo clung to Ballard’s back as he turned to make the catch. Once he came down with it, strong safety Patrick Chung hit him head-on. But Chung took the brunt of the hit and went flying while Ballard hung onto the ball for a big first down.
Jake Ballard: Red-Zone God-Send
Palmer has no shortage of large receivers to target in the red zone. The only receiver on the roster not at least 6’2” is Andre Roberts, who stands 5’11” on a good day.
Ballard is 6’6” and weighs 256 pounds. He is now the largest target Palmer has, and he can be lethal in the red zone.
In 2011, all four of his touchdowns came in the red zone. Even better: Three of them came in the fourth quarter and either gave the Giants the lead or pulled them within four or fewer points.
His first NFL touchdown came against the Cardinals in the infamous “Victor Cruz fumble/no fumble” game and pulled New York within three, setting up that ill-fated game-winning drive by Manning and Co.
It was no cheap score, either. He had to catch the ball at the back of the end zone over then-Cardinals linebacker Stewart Bradley while somehow tapping both feet inbounds while maintaining possession and falling to the ground.
He did all of that perfectly.
In all, Ballard notched eight receptions in the red zone for 60 yards and those four scores. It appears Palmer has a new red-zone toy to play with on Sundays.
Jake Ballard: Starting Tight End
In essence, Ballard could very well be named the starting tight end as early as Week 11, when Arizona travels to play the Jacksonville Jaguars. That would be a best-case scenario, as Dray and Housler have not been up to snuff this season—especially Housler.
With Ballard taking over, we may see Dray on offense less and less every week, eventually becoming solely a special teams player, much like he has been throughout his four-year Cardinals career.
It also means Housler can settle into a backup tight end role and do most of the moving around. He should get plenty of snaps from the slot and from the H-back position while still lining up at the end of the offensive line on occasion.
Ballard is a better overall blocker than both Dray and Housler, so he should see most of the “11” and “21” personnel sets (that is, one or two backs with one tight end).
Signing Ballard was a great move by general manager Steve Keim. Though he is signed through the end of the season only, he could realistically earn a long-term contract this offseason by playing well down the stretch.
If all goes well, Ballard will be the piece the Cardinals needed to push them over the hump and legitimately into the playoff picture.