When the New England Patriots claimed tight end Jake Ballard off waivers from the New York Giants last June, it was certainly an odd move. Ballard was coming off microfracture surgery in his left knee, as well as surgery to repair an ACL tear in the same knee, and his chances of playing in 2012 looked slim at best. Apart from that the Patriots have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in place at tight end, so even if healthy Ballard’s role was likely to be minimal.
Ballard did indeed miss the entire 2012 season, but at this point he is expected to be ready to go for the start of training camp, which will come around 18 months after his surgeries. It would take an injury for him to see an increased role in 2013, but Hernandez has yet to play all 16 games in three NFL seasons and Gronkowski broke his left arm twice in a short span last season while requiring another surgery to clean out an infection that had developed.
Ballard battled a right knee issue in late in 2011 with the Giants, but did have 38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 14 games (13 starts) that season to grab some attention from fantasy football owners. For a 10-game stretch through the middle of the season he had 33 receptions for 502 yards and four touchdowns, with at least three catches in nine of those games.
The Patriots’ wide receiver group has undergone some turnover this offseason. Wes Welker departed via free agency and Brandon Lloyd was released, with Danny Amendola and Donald Jones being signed to replace them. It can be argued that is a downgrade in talent overall, making New England’s tight end depth look more important.
At this point Gronkowski is expected to be ready to go for training camp, and Hernandez is a versatile weapon that is used all over the field. Ballard’s playing time and role in the passing game is likely to be inconsistent at best if everyone is healthy, and he may face a preseason battle to even make the Patriots’ roster.
Ballard will not be draftable in fantasy leagues, barring something unforeseen, but if Gronkowski and Hernandez continue to be banged up next season he could become a prominent target for quarterback Tom Brady. Ballard would then become a popular waiver wire addition in deeper leagues, and one with nice upside if he is healthy.
Brad Berreman is a contributing writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.