Newsflash: the New England Patriots have a lot of capable tight ends.
In fact, the top four tight ends on the team's depth chart prior to yesterday's signing of Jake Ballard likely would make almost any NFL roster. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are All-Pro talents, while Daniel Fells and Bo Scaife are experienced NFL veterans who would likely be the #2 option at the position for most teams in the league. So when news broke yesterday that the New England Patriots had claimed former New York Giants tight end Jake Ballard off of waivers yesterday, the question most fans asked was "why?"
Many media members and fans, both of the Patriots and other teams, immediately looked towards the contract situation of Aaron Hernandez to provide reasoning. Hernandez' draft counterpart at the position, Rob Gronkowski, was recently locked up for the rest of the decade with a six year, $54 million extension. Hernandez has yet to be extended, so the question became: did the Patriots claim Jake Ballard as a cheaper long term solution to replace Aaron Hernandez, whose contract expires after 2013?
The answer is no. Let me be clear: Jake Ballard is not an Aaron Hernandez replacement. Those who think he is are simply looking too deep into the situation.
The Patriots claimed Jake Ballard because he was a young, cheap player at a position that the team values highly. He's not here to play in 2012, but he will have a very strong chance to beat out Daniels Fells as the #3 tight end in 2013. The fact of the matter is, Ballard and Hernandez are completely different players.
Hernandez, in many ways, plays an entirely different position than Ballard. In fact, in 2012, with the addition of Daniel Fells, I wouldn't expect Hernandez to play many snaps at all in the "traditional" in-line tight end spot. Hernandez will be an h-back, fullback, receiver -- whatever the team needs him to be. For those who watched Ballard with the Giants in 2011, he doesn't have the athleticism or ability to cut on a dime that Hernandez has.
But you knew all of this.
While I can't look into a crystal ball and say whether or not the Patriots will eventually re-sign Aaron Hernandez, I can tell you one thing: The addition of Jake Ballard and the contract situation of Aaron Hernandez are two entirely separate situations, and should be treated as such.