The Patriots created a minor stir last offseason when they nabbed Jake Ballard off waivers from the Giants, a move that left New York coach Tom Coughlin feeling "very disappointed" and sparked discussions over the merits of an unwritten NFL rule that frowns upon claiming injured players.
About a year later, New England might be about to hit big on its gamble.
Aaron Hernandez is already in the midst of rehabbing a shoulder that required surgery in April, after he missed six games last season. And now, it appears that Rob Gronkowski will require a fourth, and possibly fifth, surgery on the forearm he broke in 2012. So, the Patriots again find themselves scrambling at tight end, a position that they've utilized heavily in reinventing their offense.
Enter Ballard. Now more than a year removed from the major knee injury he suffered during the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI win, the 25-year-old Ballard could be the Patriots' fallback plan -- and a good one, at that -- should either Gronkowski or Hernandez miss the start of the season.
New England reportedly is "taking it slow" in getting Ballard back on the field (the same approach it appears the Patriots will implement with Hernandez). Even so, all expectations for now are that Ballard should be ready well in advance of training camp, possibly even for the team's OTAs in late May and early June.
Should he stay healthy into the regular season, the Patriots might not experience that great of a fall-off in Gronkowski's or Hernandez's absence.
Ballard had a breakthrough showing during that Giants' Super Bowl run, catching 38 passes and scoring four TDs during the regular season, then adding five more grabs in the playoffs. An undrafted free agent out of Ohio State, the 6-foot-6, 275-pound Ballard was primed to become a key weapon for Eli Manning before suffering that knee injury.
Tom Brady and the Patriots' creative offense may help Ballard pick up where he left off. Ballard does not have the pure athleticism of New England's top two tight ends, but his size still creates mismatches and he more than held his own as a run-blocker in 2011 -- a key element of his game for the Patriots, who became a more run-friendly outfit last season.
There's no denying that an extended absence for Gronkowski would be a significant blow for the defending AFC East champs. Gronkowski has, after all, averaged more than a touchdown per game played over the past two seasons and he is vitally important as a blocker. In Ballard, though, the Patriots at least have a promising Plan B.