Jake Ballard is poised to have a big role with the New England Patriots next season, and it’s crazy to think that he was considered an incoming luxury at the tight end position early in the offseason. With Aaron Hernandez out of the picture and Rob Gronkowski potentially ready to start on the PUP list, the focus turns to Ballard and his ability to help out at the TE position. He would most closely replace Gronkowski, but Ballard is quite different from both players.
Let’s take a look at his 2011 numbers, as that was his only season as a starter. Ballard was a solid pass-catching tight end that year, as he averaged nearly ten yards per target (that means Eli Manning averaged ten yards per attempt when throwing it to Ballard). He was able to base his game off of consistency, but one thing that goes relatively unnoticed is the fact that Ballard averaged 16 yards per reception. Ballard did a great job of stretching the field as a TE, and I wonder if that ability to generate plenty of yards per catch in the seam will be showcased in New England.
The fact that Ballard is coming off of reconstructive surgery on his knee is very concerning, and the severity of the surgery is underscored by the fact that Ballard still isn’t fully healthy. He will be once we hit training camp, but it will be interesting to see if he loses a step as a result of the injury. Ballard has great size at 6’6″, 275 pounds, but he is a rather lumbering tight end who ran a 4.84 forty coming out of Ohio State.
Ballard has the frame of a tight end who should be an excellent blocker, but he was far from excellent in 2011. The Pro Football Focus, in fact, gave him mediocre blocking grades, and that’s a far cry from the blocking we have seen from Rob Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Daniel Fells. The good thing is that the Patriots already have enough tight ends that are great at blocking, and Ballard’s main job will be helping Tom Brady and the passing attack out.
There are some people who are expecting a little bit too much out of Ballard, and we should really be focusing on how he fits on the depth chart. Gronkowski might not even miss time to start the season, but, even if he does, that’s only six weeks of Ballard being the team’s number one tight end. Different metrics will rank Ballard differently in 2011 (some say he was the seventh-best TE, other say he was outside the top 15), but the consensus is that Ballard is good enough to be a No. 1 TE on many teams (the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets are two examples). Having Ballard as the No. 2 tight end behind Gronkowski is excellent, and that looks even better when you take into account the presence of two great blocking tight ends in Hooman and Fells.
The Patriots just need to hope that Ballard’s recovery from the knee injury has been nearly flawless, and it would also be nice to see him put things together as a blocker. It is important to remember that 2011 was Ballard’s only season as a starter, so there is plenty of room to learn and room for improvement as a blocker. While Ballard isn’t going to replace Hernandez due to differences in playing style and how they fit the scheme, Ballard can help replace a good bit of Hernandez’s production. As we saw last season with Hernandez hobbled, the Pats don’t need Hernandez to succeed. However, a new-look, less-certain (despite the upside) wide receiver corps makes it more important for the Patriots to get what the New York Giants got out of Jake Ballard in the 2011 season.