Jake Ballard is one of the hottest names in the Boston area Wednesday -- the veteran just moved up the New England Patriots' depth chart into the important No. 2 tight end role after the team released Aaron Hernandez, who is being investigated in a homicide case near his home in Massachusetts.
The AFC East blog caught up with our resident scout, ESPN.com’s Matt Williamson, to get his take on what to look for from Ballard and New England’s offense this season.
Matt, can Ballard absorb the loss of Hernandez in New England’s offense?
Matt Williamson: I think Ballard is a solid player. It was a nice pickup that’s going to pay off for them. But his role, his game doesn’t mirror Hernandez's at all. To put it in a nutshell, Hernandez was as much a wide receiver as he was a tight end. He was equal parts of both. ... There was no way to label him from a defensive standpoint, because the Patriots moved him around so well and he is so versatile.
Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski were viewed as the best tight-end duo in the NFL. Where do Gronkowski and Ballard potentially rank?
MW: They're still the best. If "Gronk" is "Gronk" and healthy, he is still the best player at his position in the league. [New Orleans Saints tight end] Jimmy Graham is the only one who’s close. Gronkowski is more versatile than Graham because he’s a better blocker. And Ballard is still a high-end, No. 2 tight end.
What kind of production can you expect from Ballard this season?
MW: I think we'll see the Patriots play fewer double tight-end sets than they did in the past. The receivers need to step up now, whoever that is. I would say Ballard is in the 400- or 500-yards range with maybe four touchdowns. He can get 40 catches, maybe 45. Ballard is not going to stretch the field like Hernandez, nor is he close to being as good after the catch with the ball in his hands. Ballard is not as versatile with his route tree, but he’s a good player.