FOXBORO, Mass. — It’s almost as if Bill Belichick has the second sight (actually, that would explain a lot).
Back in June 2012, Rob Gronkowski hadn’t broken his forearm (twice), had issues with infections or had a back issue pop up. But the team still decided to claim Jake Ballard off waivers from the Giants.
That’s looking like a pretty smart move right about now.
With Gronkowski reportedly needing back surgery, there’s no telling when the big man will be back and playing. Some reports say he could be back by training camp and some are saying he’ll be out until September.
Obviously it matters when Gronkowski will be back — he’s the best tight end in the NFL — but with Ballard around, it matters less. New England couldn’t ask for a better reserve for Gronkowski than Ballard, who had a stellar 2011 season with the Giants before tearing his ACL in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
Ballard caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns while contributing heavily on pass and run blocking. The breakout year seemingly came out of nowhere, too. Ballard went undrafted out of (The) Ohio State University in 2010 and spent most of the season on the practice squad, playing just one game against the Eagles. Ballard was waived twice that year by the Giants and passed through both times.
Ballard’s best game in 2011 came against his current team. He caught four passes for 67 yards and a touchdown against New England in Week 9 of 2011. This is certainly not the first time Belichick has acquired a player after having impressive games against the Patriots.
The Giants thought they could slip Ballard through waivers again in June 2012, but then the Patriots came swooping in. They had to store Ballard on their 90-man roster before they could place him on injured reserve, but that kind of thinking toward the future is paying off.
Now Ballard will be able to run with the first team until Gronkowski comes back. That, plus an entire season of learning the playbook while on injured reserve, will give him an edge on how most new players have to adapt to the Patriots’ system. Ballard is getting valuable reps and already has a grasp on the offense.
The Patriots will obviously notice a difference between having Gronkowski playing inline tight end and Ballard, but it won’t be to the same extent as they saw in the past when Gronkowski missed time. They also won’t be forced to move to a one tight end set with Hernandez taking on more of a blocking role. Hernandez will still be able to do Hernandez-like things, and Ballard will take more of the grunt work.
Of course, all of this depends on how well Ballard recovers from ACL surgery. The fourth-year vet was hesitant to say he’s 100 percent recovered from ACL surgery, and there were still times he appeared to be taking it slow during OTAs. But he’s on the field and that’s the important part.
“It’s feeling good,” Ballard said about his knee. “It’s good to get back out here with the team. I’ve been around these guys for about a year. So it feels good to play with them and take what I’ve learned in the meeting room out on the field.”
Even once Gronkowski is able to come back, Ballard could still have a role on the team. Hernandez has played a fair share of wide receiver in his time with the Patriots, so the team could run three tight end sets with Gronkowski, Ballard and Hernandez. Hey, while we’re getting crazy, they could run a five tight end set with Hernandez and Daniel Fells outside, Gronkowski and Ballard in line and Michael Hoomanawanui at H-back.
The mentality around New England that “you can never have enough tight ends” is looking genius right about now. Gronkowski seems to have endless ailments and Hernandez has been good for one or two injuries per season, as well. Having guys like Ballard, Fells, Hoomanawanui and undrafted players like Zach Sudfeld and Brandon Ford is important.
The Patriots were the only team willing to “waste” a roster spot on Ballard back in June 2012, but that extra body on the field during mini-camp and training camp would not have been playing nearly as big of a role as Ballard will this season.