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If Rob Gronkowski is sidelined, Jake Ballard could be in line for more work

04.07.13 at 10:23 am ET
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If the Patriots are going to be without Rob Gronkowski for any stretch of the 2013 season — and if he’s over his own injury issues that landed him on the shelf for the entire 2012 season — expect Jake Ballard to see an uptick in reps.

Gronkowski might not be available for the start of the 2013 season, according to reports, and as a result, the Patriots could find themselves relying on the former Giant they picked up prior to the start of the 2012 season. Ballard, a 6-foot-6, 275-pounder, was undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010, but turned himself into an effective downfield threat in 2011 with the Giants (38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns).

When it comes to replicating Gronkowski in the New England offense, as was the case with Wes Welker, no one individual will be able to offer the same level of production. However, at least when it comes to playing style, physical presence and overall skill set, Ballard is the closest you’re going to get, at least on the current roster. Like the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski, Ballard is more of a physical type who can also offer you some ability as a pass catcher and blocker — a combo that Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui do not necessarily possess. (In 2011, our pals at Pro Football Focus had Ballard graded at -0.1 when it came to pass blocking and +1.1 when it came to run blocking. By way of comparison, that same season, PFF had Gronkowski with a -1.0 grade as a pass blocker and +10.9 as a run blocker in 2011; Hernandez got a -0.3 grade as a pass blocker and -0.5 as a run blocker.)

However, the biggest question about Ballard right now is his own health. He suffered a serious knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots, and was waived by New York the following June. Despite the fact that he failed a physical, the Giants had every intention of bringing Ballard back. However, the Patriots swooped in and claimed him off waivers, much to the consternation of New York coach Tom Coughlin. New England stashed him on IR all season, and while he reportedly hasn’t had any problems with his rehab, there has to be a set of realistic expectations in place when it comes to Ballard in 2013. A year away from the game for anyone — even if he’s in perfect shape — means an extended transition time when it comes to getting back into the game and staying on the field.

Regardless of Gronkowski’s health, the Patriots could always dive back in and try and pick up another tight end in the draft. One intriguing possibility we discussed here is Alabama’s Michael Williams, a combine snub who has an impressive resume. (A reference from Williams’€™ college coach and trusted Bill Belichick pal Nick Saban might be enough for New England to take a chance on him. The 6-foot-6, 269-pounder had 24 catches for 183 yards and four touchdowns for the national champions.)

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