This offseason has a foreign feeling for the New England Patriots organization given the team’s upstanding reputation (minus SpyGate) throughout the league. The Rob Gronkowski off-field escapades turned into a Tim Tebow cameo appearance which then morphed into an Aaron Hernandez serial killer investigation. Regardless of what type of spin you want to put on each of these stories, they are all very un-Patriotic (see what I did there?).
Thankfully for New England the story will be shifting to on the field soon and that is where some serious question marks lie given the uncertainty at the tight end position. For a team once embarrassed by its riches at tight end, the Patriots now have a nearly bare cupboard pending Gronkowski’s health.
His addition didn’t come with much fanfare last offseason, but when the Pats snagged Jake Ballard from the New York Giants after he was placed on injured reserve following an ACL injury, the move was savvy like the Patriots of old. Obviously he spent all of last season recovering from a torn ACL which means he has been away from the game for awhile, but Ballard was quite productive the last time he saw the field. His 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 2011 came in his first real game-action.
Obviously his sample size is smaller, but Ballard’s 15.9 yard average per catch trumps Hernandez’s 11.2 and Gronkowski’s 14.2 by a sizable margin. Given quarterback Tom Brady’s affinity for feeding the tight end position, Ballard come be in line for a significant workload with the Pats this season.
Another area where Ballard has a serious advantage over his predecessors is in the size department. Although he went undrafted out of Ohio State, Ballard certainly has prototypical size for the tight end position at 6-foot-6, 275 pounds. He has the size to stay at home as an in-line blocker on running plays and he also clearly has the ability to get involved in the passing game.
The final factor working in Ballard’s favor is the recent departure of Wes Welker from the New England aerial attack. Danny Amendola was added to augment this loss, but his injury concerns are clearly still an issue that must be dealt with. Even though the Pats were surprisingly the top team in the NFL when it comes to rushing attempts a year ago, Brady will still be throwing the ball quite a bit this coming season.
It seems like the stars have aligned for Ballard to make his triumphant return to the scene as a productive tight end in 2013. Tebow hasn’t been transformed into a tight end (yet), and Gronkowski doesn’t look to be walking through that door anytime soon. Given all of the factors surrounding the Patriots this season, the stage is set for Ballard to have a breakout 2013 campaign.