The Potential Importance Of Jake Ballard

Jim Rogash

With Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez both recovering from injuries, the Patriots will look to build depth at the tight end position. For their current backup, Jake Ballard, his contributions could end up being invaluable to the team.

Over the past three years in New England, we've all been treated to a new and innovative passing attack that has been described as game changing. This approach, as worked up by the Patriots coaching staff, revolves around the use of two different types of tight ends.

Since breaking into the league in 2010, both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez have taken the league by storm when used in this new offensive approach.

Gronkowski has the ability to stretch the field and use his physicality and strength to become the NFL's most dangerous redzone threat. Hernandez, meanwhile has also made his mark on the position, bringing and quickness and wide receiver like prowess that has allowed him to become a mismatch for NFL linebackers.

As some scouts have put it, this two tight end attack has revolutionized the game and some NFL teams are starting to take notice. Recently, the Cincinnati Bengals have said that they are looking to emulate what the Patriots are doing by planning to heavily featuring both Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert in their offense this coming season.

When both Gronkowski and Hernandez are on the field together, they're almost unstoppable. But when one of them is injured, flaws emerge in the approach. When both aren't out there, the offense becomes dangerously vulnerable to opposing defenses.

Unfortunately for the Patriots, they only had both tight ends on the field for five games last season. As talented as they are, Gronkowski and Hernandez haven't been able to stay on the field recently. At least, stay on the field together.

Then emerges Jake Ballard, the tight end that Bill Belichick so cleverly plucked off waivers and away from the Giants when they were trying to sneak him onto injured reserve. Ballard was unable to contribute to his new team last season due to injury, but it certainly ready to make an impact in 2013.

For the Patriots, getting Ballard on the field couldn't have come at a better time.

On Monday, Gronkowski underwent surgery on his left forearm for the fourth time in his career. He will be out for an estimated two and a half months and is expected to be ready for training camp. He's also contemplating another surgery, this time on his sore back that has bothered him throughout his college days. But again, reports indicate that he'll still be ready for training camp, back surgery or no back surgery.

All in all, both Gronkowski and Hernandez should be healthy enough to attend training camp and hopefully play the 2013 season in the elite, unstoppable manner we all know and love.

Gronkowski has now had issues with his ankle, back and forearm and he's only 24 years old. This has caused concern for many, and has raised the question of whether or not he'll ever be able to play a season in the NFL without sustaining a new injury, or re-aggravating an old one. Never mind the fact that he's yet to be 100% healthy during a team playoff run.

The answer that some of you have tossed around has been to simply stick Hernandez in his place and simply double his targets. The problem with that is that that isn't Hernandez's game. He's the tight end who acts as a third or fourth wide receiver and uses his quickness to make plays, not his build and power to plow through opposing defenses.

This is where Ballard comes into play. At 6-foot-6 and 256 pounds, Ballard's build is the exact same as Gronkowski, who is also 6-foot-6 and 256. There's no question that Gronk is the better of the two, but Ballard is more than an adequate fill-in if Gronkowski were to go down with another injury.

After redshirting his rookie season, Ballard saw significant playing time with the Super Bowl champion Giants in 2011, where he caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns. He emerged as the No. 1 tight end on the roster and became Eli Manning's favorite target in the redzone. Ballard, as you see in the picture above, played a big factor in the Giants' regular season win over the Patriots. Catching the game-winning touchdown pass near the end of regulation.

While I understand that he's not Gronk 2.0, he possess the same type of skillset that the Patriots would want at the "Y-Tight End" position that Gronk plays. He's big, physical and has an established redzone presence. Ballard is also a solid run blocker, a very underrated part of Gronk's game. Plus, he's only 25 and playing in an offense that relies heavily on the tight ends, like the Patriots', could help take his game to another level.

With Gronkowski's health certainly in question, the presence of a guy like Ballard should provide valuable insurance going forward. In my opinion, he's the most talented, backup tight end the Patriots have had on their roster since the New England "TE" Party came about, and the guy I feel most comfortable starting in Gronk's place in a regular season or playoff game.

Best case scenario, both Gronkowski and Hernandez recover fully and have a tremendous 2013 season and carry the Patriots all the way to the end and help them bring the Lombardi Trophy back to New England. That's what I think we all want as Patriots fans.

But if something were to happen to Gronk this season, it makes this Ballard waiver claim look even better, and can allow Tom Brady and company to keep their offensive approach under any circumstances. It's a roster move that could go down as one of Bill Belichick's best ever.

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