AFC East: Jake Ballard

Sharing some midday cut-down thoughts

August, 31, 2013
8/31/13
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Sharing non-Tim Tebow-based thoughts on some of the Patriots' roster moves today:

1a. The change at punter, with Zoltan Mesko out and rookie Ryan Allen in, has many layers. Both showed this preseason that they are deserving of punting in the NFL this season and that's why I took the unconventional approach of keeping both on a final 53-man roster projection (the idea being that maybe it would have been easier to slide Allen to the practice squad after a few weeks). Allen's upside is obvious; his leg is a bit stronger than Mesko's. But Mesko's control and directional punting seemed a notch above over the course of training camp and the preseason. However, Allen's three second-half punts on Thursday might have been the clincher, which showed his potential when it comes to control and directional punting.

Mesko
Allen
1b. Economics shouldn't have been the primary reason for the decision to go with Allen over Mesko, but it has to be a consideration. Mesko was due to earn $1.3 million in the final year of his contract. Allen has a three-year contract and is due to earn $405,000 this season.

1c. There is a trickle-down effect when it comes to the field-goal operation, as Mesko has served as the primary holder for kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Allen didn't hold at Louisiana Tech, but he's worked on the skill since joining the Patriots. Allen will likely become the primary holder, although backup quarterback Ryan Mallett could also be a consideration for the role.

1d. In 2005, the Patriots released rookie kicker Robbie Gould after an impressive camp and later regretted it when Adam Vinatieri departed in free agency the following year. I wondered how much that experience might have played a factor in this decision.

1e. Mesko goes down as one of the players who was most fun to cover. He also seemed most genuine and his farewell message to fans was most classy. One of my favorite personal memories of Mesko was how he was brought to tears after receiving the team's community service award in 2012. It meant so much to him and the emotions took over.

2. The biggest surprise has come among the reserves at defensive end, with Justin Francis, Marcus Benard and Jermaine Cunningham all being cut. They projected to the 3-4-5 spots on the depth chart. Health was likely a factor with Francis and Cunningham, as they have been sidelined. There is always the possibility for them to return if not picked up elsewhere, but an initial thought is that 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan (previous film breakdown) has impressed to the point that the coaching staff felt comfortable letting go of more experienced depth at the position. Buchanan was impressive on Thursday.

3. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was scheduled to earn $1.3 million, but he's agreed to reduce the salary this year with the chance to recoup some of the earnings in incentives, which helped him stick on the roster. Hoomanawanui's smarts, professionalism and dependability made an impression on the coaching staff last season. That he was the last tight end standing among the group of himself, Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells is a minor surprise.

4. The release of defensive tackle Marcus Forston was a mild surprise from this viewpoint. This could mean that rookie defensive tackle Joe Vellano is the top backup behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Vellano caught the eye early in training camp, but still didn't think he'd top Forston at this point.

5. Still waiting to hear the fate of presumed bubble players like Vellano, safety Adrian Wilson, running back Leon Washington, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, cornerback Marquice Cole, fullback James Develin and linebacker Steve Beauharnais.

Examining Patriots' latest cuts

August, 30, 2013
8/30/13
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Click here for a look at the New England Patriots' latest roster moves.

Most significant move: Releasing tight ends Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells. Ballard, who was claimed on waivers in June, wasn't as widely considered being close to the roster bubble as Fells and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (who is still with the club). The Patriots have to decide whether to place recovering tight end Rob Gronkowski on the active roster or reserve/physically unable to perform list by Saturday at 6 p.m. ET, and with Ballard and Fells no longer part of the mix, this could be a sign Gronkowski will land on the active roster.

Still 12 more moves to get to limit: By making 10 cuts, the Patriots now have a roster of 65 players. That means 12 more moves must be made by Saturday's deadline.

Tebow remains in the mix: Quarterback Tim Tebow is still on the roster and his fate will be one of the most-watched storylines across the NFL into Saturday. He still faces longer odds for a roster spot from this viewpoint, but if the past 13 years have taught us anything with Bill Belichick, it's always to expect the unexpected. So the question remains: Did Tebow do enough over the course of the preseason to earn a spot? He played the entire second half in Thursday's 28-20 victory over the Giants and it was easily his best performance of the preseason as he finished 6-of-11 for 91 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He added six rushes for 30 yards and was sacked four times. Asked what he would bring to the team if he sticks on the roster, Tebow said, "Someone that will just work hard, loves the game of football, will always hopefully, Lord willing, have a great attitude, a great work ethic, and someone that tries to be an encourager in here."

Minor surprise with Benard: Defensive end Marcus Benard had been one of the feel-good stories of training camp. He had a career-high 7.5 sacks with the Cleveland Browns in 2010, but barely registered on the radar the past two seasons, mainly because of injuries. He had seemingly carved out a niche for himself as a capable reserve and interior substitute rusher in training camp and preseason games, so his release came as a mild surprise.

Patriots cuts: TE Jake Ballard, FB Ben Bartholomew, DE Marcus Benard, TE Daniel Fells, WR Johnathan Haggerty, OL Luke Patterson, DL Gilbert Pena, LB Mike Rivera, C Matt Stankiewitch, DL Scott Vallone
The Patriots have informed veteran tight end Jake Ballard that he will be released today, a source confirms.

The Patriots had waited a year to work with Ballard, who was claimed on waivers from the Giants on June 12, 2012, after undergoing serious knee surgery. Upon his return to the field in 2013 spring camps and then training camp, Ballard said that his knee wasn't back to the point where it was pre-injury, but that he was still working into form. He didn't always appear to be running well.

The 25-year-old played in all four of the team's preseason games, and his primary effectiveness came as an in-line blocker. He didn't catch a pass.

The release of Ballard is a mild surprise, although he did play deep into Thursday night's preseason finale. At the time, it was unclear if that was related to him gaining more comfort with his knee in game action, or if his spot was in jeopardy.

Now we have the answer.

With both Ballard and Daniel Fells told of their release today, the Patriots now have Rob Gronkowski, Zach Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui on the roster at tight end. This could be a sign that Gronkowski has a good chance to open the season on the team's 53-man roster.

Ben Volin of the Boston Globe first reported the news on Ballard.
After reviewing the first quarter of the Patriots’ 40-9 loss to the Lions, some picked-up pieces and observations:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Paul SancyaThe Patriots' compact formations gave the Lions a numbers advantage in the box.
1. The Patriots' offense opened the game with a focus on compact formations. On their first play, a Stevan Ridley run for no gain, tight end Zach Sudfeld initially lined up in a lead-blocking fullback position before motioning to the left side of the line as a wing (a step behind the line of scrimmage and standing up). Tight end Jake Ballard was aligned in a similar position to the right side, although he crouched before the snap, almost as if he was on the field-goal protection unit. Receivers Julian Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins aligned closer to the line of scrimmage, giving a true run-based look. The compact alignment brought safety Louis Delmas into the box before Tom Brady snapped the ball, giving Detroit a numbers advantage in the box -- 8 on 7. It’s hard for an offense to win in those situations, especially against a powerful defensive front like the Lions.

2. Edelman is one of the Patriots’ better blocking receivers, and in opening the game in some compact alignments, it seemed as if the Patriots were hoping to play to Edelman’s strengths in this area. But on a Ridley run for minus-1 yard on the Patriots’ third snap, Edelman looked to be responsible for picking up safety Louis Delmas, who again came down into the box and nicely timed the snap before surging through the defensive right side. Edelman couldn’t get over quick enough, in part because his path was altered as Ballard was engaged with Lions rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah and had been pushed back by a strong initial punch from Ansah. Unblocked, Delmas easily made the tackle. From Ridley’s perspective, this was a good example of how there was often simply nowhere to run.

3. The local broadcast crew on WBZ-TV had a nice isolation shot of Thompkins on his first catch, a 37-yarder down the left sideline in the first quarter. It showed Thompkins’ terrific footwork at the start of his route to get off the line of scrimmage and gain initial separation on Lions cornerback Darius Slay (second-round pick, Mississippi State). When it comes to receivers, plenty of focus is placed on 40 times and leaping ability, but the subtleties of route-running can sometimes be overlooked. Thompkins has struck us as a tactician in training camp, and this was a perfect example of that. It helped that Brady made a pre-snap adjustment after reading the defense, knowing he had Thompkins against man-coverage in a spot where the safety had a long way to go to help. Looked like a sharp pre-snap call by Brady, followed by an excellent throw. But it all started with Thompkins’ ability to get off the line cleanly.

4. On the play in which Sudfeld lost a fumble to end what had been a promising opening drive, the Patriots aligned both Sudfeld and Ballard to the right side of the line in a run-based look (YY wing). Receivers Aaron Dobson and Edelman were split wide to the left side. The Lions again had eight defenders in the box and when Brady executed a play-action to Stevan Ridley, the Lions’ linebackers had committed to the point that it opened a wide space between the linebackers and safeties in the middle of the field, which is what Sudfeld, up the seam, exploited. Everything about the play appeared to be perfectly executed ... except for the fumble. Some credit goes to Lions safety Glover Quin for jarring the ball free, but it still seemed as if Sudfeld could have tucked the ball away tighter.

5. One follow-up on Sudfeld: We’ve talked a lot about his pass-catching abilities, which look like they are at competitive NFL levels, but haven’t focused as much on his blocking and how that is probably the one area that calls for the most development. On the play in which Thompkins dropped a pass to end the Patriots’ second drive, Sudfeld, initially lined as a wingback on the left side was called upon to block fourth-year end Willie Young one-on-one. Young got him off balance and closed in quickly on Brady, speeding up Brady's clock to get rid of the football. For Sudfeld to be viewed as more of a pure tight end, as opposed to a receiver playing tight end, this is the area to focus on. On Brandon Bolden's 6-yard run with four minutes left in the quarter, Sudfeld had a nice seal block on end Jason Jones, showing he’s willing to mix it up.

6. Lions running back Reggie Bush is dangerous in space, as the Patriots experienced on his 67-yard catch-and run on third-and-10 with 9:18 left in the first quarter. The Patriots were in a dime package (6 defensive backs), with linebacker Jerod Mayo entering for his first play of the game along with Adrian Wilson, the safety who aligned to the left of Mayo in a linebacker-type role. Those were the two defenders who had the best chance to limit Bush’s yards after the catch, but both over-pursued toward the sideline, leaving Bush the inside part of the field to shake free. Safety Steve Gregory had blitzed as a fifth rusher off the defensive right side, forcing a quick release from quarterback Matthew Stafford, so between the blitz and the over-pursuit by Mayo and Wilson, it led to the big play. It looked like a good play-call by the Lions against the blitz, but still one that shouldn't have gone for 67.

7. End Rob Ninkovich looked like one of the team’s best defensive players, and a three-play series on the Lions’ second drive highlighted his versatility. On first down, he was unblocked off the left side as Stafford handed off to Bush, and Ninkovich brought down Bush -- who could have had an open cutback lane if Ninkovich hadn’t maintained his edge -- for a loss of minus-4 yards. On the next play, Ninkovich was dropping back into coverage (incomplete pass). Then on third down, he initially rushed, but when the ball was out quickly, he chased down Bush from behind and was credited with a tackle that forced a punt. Ninkovich wears Mike Vrabel’s old No. 50 jersey and the more you watch him, you can see some similarities. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be catching passes as a goal-line tight end next week.

8. Veteran defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is a powerful presence at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, and plays with what Bill Belichick described as “long levers.” On a “sudden change” situation, in which the Patriots’ defense had to stem the momentum after Bolden lost a fumble at the New England 19 with 3:21 remaining, Kelly simply powered his way through rookie right guard Larry Warford. Too powerful -- the veteran schooling the youngster on how it’s done. With Kelly on the interior, the Patriots have the potential to get more interior penetration in 2013. He looks like a decisive upgrade over last year’s co-starters Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love.

Snaps: RBs learn cost of fumbling

August, 23, 2013
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DETROIT -- In tabulating the snaps played by skill-position players with the first-unit offense, one aspect stood out -- after losing fumbles, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen didn't play again for the rest of the half.

Here is the breakdown of snaps played (includes penalties, not half-ending kneel-down):

QB Tom Brady -- 46 of 46
WR Julian Edelman -- 45 of 46
WR Aaron Dobson -- 31 of 46
WR Kenbrell Thompkins -- 31 of 46
TE Jake Ballard -- 27 of 46
RB Stevan Ridley -- 21 of 46
TE Zach Sudfeld -- 19 of 46
TE Michael Hoomanawanui -- 16 of 46
RB Shane Vereen -- 10 of 46
FB James Develin -- 9 of 46
RB Leon Washington -- 8 of 46
WR Josh Boyce -- 6 of 46
RB LeGarrette Blount -- 4 of 46
RB Brandon Bolden -- 3 of 46

QUICK-HIT THOUGHTS: Julian Edelman filled in for the hobbled Danny Amendola, playing every snap but the short-yardage fourth-and-1 run in the second quarter when the Patriots called on three tight ends and a fullback and running back. ... Edelman and Kenbrell Thompkins opened the game in the two-receiver package, with Aaron Dobson coming on as the third receiver. The Patriots utilized the three-receiver package quite a bit, even turning to a four-wide look at times. ... At tight end, Jake Ballard and Zach Sudfeld opened as the top combination. Ballard has gradually upped his workload this preseason, with his 27 snaps a high. ... At running back, Stevan Ridley was the clear No. 1 option.
Tom Brady, Danny AmendolaStew Milne/USA TODAY SportsTom Brady and Danny Amendola got some quality work done early against Tampa Bay.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots improved to 2-0 in the preseason with a 25-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night, their first exhibition game at Gillette Stadium of 2013.

The win wraps up a second straight week of joint practices, as the Buccaneers spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday working alongside the Patriots in advance of the game.

Below are 12 takeaways from Friday's action, including some underlying storylines that may have gone unnoticed upon first glance:

1. So much for the concerns about how a recent knee injury might impact Tom Brady's performance, as the quarterback was masterful two days after going down in a scary moment during Wednesday's practice. Brady had just one incompletion on the evening, carving the Buccaneers defense on an opening-drive score and looking precise on nearly every one of his throws. Brady had his usual command of the offense, and continues to be in sync with his new cast of receivers, led by Danny Amendola.

2. Amendola was the best receiver on the field Friday night, and he showed off what makes him unique as a player: his precise route running, stop-on-a-dime quickness with the ball in his hands, and the ability to stress a defense up the field as well. Amendola sneaked behind the defense on a post for a score, and the spacing on the route was an important takeaway. The 2013 version of the Patriots offense, at least in early viewings, has shown an ability to spread a defense thin both horizontally and vertically. They have some perimeter presence with Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, but also some slot stressers in Amendola and the tight ends. This isn't to say that this year's offense will be better than last year's, just different.

3. After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick explained he that decided to receive after winning the coin toss in order to give his team a chance for a fast start. The move paid off with a touchdown for his offense, and the defense followed suit, forcing a stop on the Bucs' opening drive. The first defensive play from scrimmage was a blitz-up-the-middle sack from linebacker Brandon Spikes, one of three first-quarter sacks for the Patriots. That's a critical component to this defense's success, as they struggled to pressure the various Eagles quarterbacks last week. Each of the Patriots' starters at defensive end, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, recorded at least one sack as well.

[+] EnlargeZach Sudfeld
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsZach Sudfeld caught this two-point conversion from Tom Brady and later added a 22-yard TD from Ryan Mallett.
4. There were some ups and downs from Ryan Mallett during the second quarter, as he came in to relieve Brady, completing 12-of-20 passes, including a 22-yard score to tight end Zach Sudfeld. We've learned before that the evaluation process of a backup quarterback extends far beyond preseason game action, as many will recall an uneasy 2008 preseason for Matt Cassel that left many outside of the organization uncomfortable with the thought of him as a fill-in starter. Cassel went on to help the team to 11 wins that season, reinforcing that we have to look at preseason games as just a piece of the puzzle. Mallett flexed his effortless arm strength on some throws, while he had misses that you'd count on him to make if he were the starter. The most important takeaway from tonight is an evaluation of a player's traits. For Mallett, we still want to see more before making a hard-line evaluation one way or another.

5. There's been an abundance of talk about the Patriots' rookie receivers during training camp (and we'll include Sudfeld in that group), but it was the one who was drafted highest, Aaron Dobson, who appeared to have the smallest role in the early portion of the game. Dobson took just one snap during the opening drive, far fewer than Kenbrell Thompkins, and that could be a sign that Dobson is further down the depth chart at this time. The two are different types of perimeter receivers, with Thompkins a more refined route runner and with better quickness, but Dobson holds the edge in size and length, an important set of traits in the red zone and competitive catch situations.

6. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork didn't play a heavy dose of snaps tonight (neither did Jerod Mayo), which gave us a chance to check out the rotation of defensive tackles behind him. Veteran Tommy Kelly is effectively the second starter in our estimation, but the picture becomes much less clear after that. Marcus Forston flashed on a goal-line play that resulted in a tackle for loss, while undrafted rookies Cory Grissom and Joe Vellano also showed some ability to generate interior push. Forston was a surprise to make the 53-man roster last season as an undrafted free agent, and the door appears to be open for another undrafted free agent to land on the active roster this year, especially if Armond Armstead is unable to return before the start of the regular season.

7. A few special-teams thoughts: Kickoff coverage was an area of strength for the Patriots throughout the 2012 season, but tonight it fell short of expectations. The Bucs returned their first kickoff 63 yards, far too much to give up. On the positive side, ace special-teamer Matthew Slater had a textbook take-down in punt coverage from his gunner position, a role he drew praise from Bill Belichick for earlier this week. Finally, for the second straight game, we'll give the edge to punter Zoltan Mesko over Ryan Allen in the competition (this week was a clear victory for the incumbent starter). Allen was unable to pin a plus-50 punt deep in Tampa territory, and Mesko had a substantial edge in overall average (44.3 to 39).

8. While the Patriots feel good about their starting trio of cornerbacks -- Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington -- the depth at the position is an area to monitor. Rookie Logan Ryan had the defensive play of the night, hauling in an interception for a touchdown. That comes after last week's failed interception against the Eagles. Veteran Marquice Cole provides some slot presence and special-teams value, but Ryan duplicates much of what Cole is able to do. If Ras-I Dowling is unable to return soon from injury, Ryan could effectively work himself into the fourth cornerback job, which could turn into third cornerback duties if Alfonzo Dennard faces jail time stemming from his July arrest.

9. Preseason games aren't always predictive of what the regular season will hold, but we saw quite a few two-back sets from the Patriots early on in the game. That's not something we saw much of last season or even last week, but fullback James Develin was on the field to start the game and played a handful of snaps on the Patriots' 15-play opening drive. When Josh McDaniels returned to New England, there was a belief that he might bring more two-back sets with him. Although that wasn't the case in 2012, we saw a steady dose of it on Friday night. Develin could be in competition with Michael Hoomanawanui for a roster spot.

10. There may not even be a starting job for him to win, but second-round pick Jamie Collins had strong stretches on defense Friday night, the second time in as many preseason games that he's impressed. The rangy, long 23-year-old worked almost exclusively as a strong-side linebacker from a stand-up alignment, which appears to be the role he has settled into (and one that Dont'a Hightower handles among the starting group). What will be interesting is to see if his movement skills are enough to translate into a prominent coverage linebacker role in sub defensive packages. One area that stood out for Collins tonight: his ability to stack and shed in the running game, an area we though he could improve upon from his college tape.

11. Left tackle Nate Solder took some heat this week after allowing his defender to rush through him during practice, which led to Brady going down and dinging his knee. Truth be told, that's a part of playing left tackle in the NFL -- there are many talented rushers -- but it looked like Solder had a steady performance tonight. That's par for the course for the 25-year-old, viewed by many as a high-upside left tackle, but he deserves credit for bouncing back after what was likely a long Wednesday night for him.

12. For the second consecutive week, Jake Ballard was used as the blocking tight end with the starting offense. From our initial viewing, it looked like another strong effort from the burly tight end, as he helped to set the edge and kick-start the running game. He played 19 snaps tonight, seven more than his 12 against the Eagles.

W2W4: Five things we'll be focused on

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The Patriots host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday in the second preseason game for both teams (Fox, 8 p.m. ET), and here are a few things we'll be keeping a close eye on:

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1. Brady and the quarterback reps. After Wednesday's scare, in which he suffered a bruised left knee, quarterback Tom Brady returned to practice Thursday and wore a knee brace while going through the entire practice without limitation. Brady played 16 snaps in the preseason opener, and perhaps the coaching staff alters its plans against the Buccaneers based on the injury. Top backup Ryan Mallett played 25 snaps in the opener and could be line for more work. Tim Tebow was on for 31 snaps in the opener. One more thought on this: Let's also watch the matchup of Patriots left tackle Nate Solder versus Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn, since it was Clayborn's bull-rush -- during which he pushed Solder back -- that led to Brady's injury.

2. Sturdy run defense with the front seven. Buccaneers running back Doug Martin can be a handful and represents a good test for a Patriots front seven that should have Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones at end, Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly at tackle and a linebacker trio of Brandon Spikes (middle), Dont'a Hightower (strongside) and Jerod Mayo (weakside). Not that there figures to be any big game planning for a preseason game, but the Patriots talk often about making the opposition one-dimensional by taking away the run. With limited opportunities in preseason to work on run fits with live tackling, this will be one of their best chances to do so.

PatriotsBuccaneers3. Ballard ready for increased workload? Tight end Jake Ballard remains a player of interest from this perspective. Returning from serious knee surgery in 2012, he has been managed carefully in practice and played 12 snaps in the preseason opener, all with the first-unit offense. The top tight-end pairing of late has been Ballard and rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld. With veteran Daniel Fells unlikely to suit up -- he's been out of practice the past few days due to an undisclosed injury -- is Ballard ready for some more work? If so, the areas we'll be watching closest are his inline blocking and how more snaps might affect his knee.

4. Bounce-back for Gostkowski and field goal operation. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed field goals from 44 and 53 yards in the preseason opener -- not exactly chip shots -- and, as Bill Belichick sometimes points out, it isn't always on the kicker. It's the entire operation -- snap, hold, kick. Gostkowski, who hit from 34 yards in the game, looks like he's had a strong week of practice. Also on special teams, the ongoing competition between incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko and rookie Ryan Allen is a good one. Allen has a strong leg but the key for both is going to be consistency.

5. Can the rookie receivers do it again? We've spent a lot of time focusing on the rookie trio of Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted) and their assimilation into the offense. So far, so good. Brady had made the point that by the middle of training camp the team would have a better feel on its receiving corps, and one thing is clear: The rookies are a big part of it. Of the group, Thompkins might be the most impressive to this point. He had four catches in the preseason opener and was on the same page with Brady early.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Facing arguably the greatest challenge of his 14-year NFL career, stripped of his go-to receiver Wes Welker and then some, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrived at training camp hoping to do more.

Never before has the team had such a youthful look at the position, where there have been more struggles than successes in drafting and developing talent. The Patriots opened training camp with 12 receivers on the roster, six of whom are rookies.

Three of those young pups -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and free-agent Kenbrell Thompkins -- have taken more repetitions with Brady through the first three days of training camp than most could have imagined. One reason the results have looked fairly sharp is the extra work that was put in thanks to Brady's early arrival (rookies reported the day before Brady).

It is almost as if Brady is more than just the team's quarterback now; he's part coach, too. Unlike his record-breaking 2007 season, when there was an immediate connection with veterans Randy Moss, Welker and Jabar Gaffney, there is a certain teacher-student dynamic in play now. Brady, a stickler for detail, can be tough to please.

"He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game, so he’s definitely demanding,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Dobson, a smooth-strider from Marshall who the Patriots hope will fill the outside role that Chad Johnson (2011) and Brandon Lloyd (2012) filled the past two years. “[He’s] definitely tough to play for.”

Some used to say the same thing about Miami Dolphins great Dan Marino, and there is a connection in play between Marino and what Brady currently faces. Because Marino had played for so long in Miami (1983 to '99), the offense grew so much each season that it was difficult in Marino’s later years for any young or new receiver to handle. So when go-to receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper were no longer in the mix -- they had grown with Marino in the offense -- it was a challenge to find anyone capable of stepping in.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has acknowledged that’s a similar dynamic to what his team is currently navigating. This is Brady’s 14th year in the Patriots’ offense, which has evolved in many layers since his first year in 2000, and there is a lot there for any receiver to handle, let alone a rookie.

That is a big reason why the Patriots were drawn to Dobson and Boyce in the draft, and why Thompkins -- an older rookie at 25 who went undrafted after two years at Cincinnati -- has been an under-the-radar surprise to this point. All have a high football IQ. And so does free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has developed a quick rapport with Brady that stands out.

Still, the Patriots might have to “trim the fat” in some areas of the playbook, according to Belichick. There will also be times when patience will be tested.

But watching Brady through the first three days of camp, part of it seems to have invigorated him. Those close to him say he is more committed than ever before; he turns 36 on Aug. 3, craves another Super Bowl championship, and knows that if all the receiver changes are going to produce the desired results -- especially with the rookies -- it is going to take extra work.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Distractions from tight end Aaron Hernandez.

In an unprecedented move, Belichick called a news conference two days before the team’s training camp practice to address Hernandez’s murder charge and its impact on the franchise. Then Brady spoke to reporters the following day. The goal was to balance the fine line between showing empathy and perspective to something bigger than football, but also position the club to move forward.

Because of that proactive approach, Hernandez wasn’t much of a topic of discussion from a media perspective by the second day of training camp. But will that change as new developments come to light in the case against Hernandez?

As one would expect, Belichick addressed players about the situation in a team meeting at the start of camp.

“He had comments, but that’s between him and the team. If he wants to share it, that’s fine,” said offensive lineman Logan Mankins, one of the team’s captains. (No surprise, but Belichick hasn’t been in the sharing mood.)

Mankins, the third-longest tenured player on the team (nine years) after Brady (14) and Wilfork (10), touched on how players are attempting to move on.

“At the time, you kind of reflect, but now it’s football season and everything goes in a drawer; no matter how you feel about it, it’s put away,” he said. “It’s football, it’s straightforward, and that’s all you can concentrate on or you’ll fall behind. Bill puts so much pressure on everyone and demands so much work and focus that if you’re not just focusing on football, then you’re in trouble.”

2. Void at top of tight end depth chart.

By the time the Patriots had blazed a trail through the NFL in 2011 with their innovative two-tight end offense, Rob Gronkowski had played almost 95 percent of the offensive snaps and Hernandez about 77 percent. The results were impressive, and others around the league considered plans to attempt to duplicate it.

That’s also when the Patriots extended the contracts of both players -- Gronkowski through 2019 and Hernandez 2018 -- with the idea of building their offense around them (over Welker).

The plans obviously haven’t worked out as desired, and if Gronkowski isn’t ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 8 at Buffalo after a surgery-filled offseason, it sparks the questions: Who fills the void, and how does it impact plans to play with multiple tight ends?

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Patriots may lean heavily on former New York Giants TE Jake Ballard early in the season as Rob Gronkowski rehabs from injury.
Former New York Giant Jake Ballard (6-6, 260) and returning veterans Daniel Fells (6-4, 260) and Michael Hoomanawanui (6-4, 260) are the top candidates, while rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) is a potential sleeper.

“I don’t want to say this is Wally Pipp and Lou Gehrig, but that’s the classic story … it’s there if they can do it,” Belichick said.

Still, it would be a surprise if the Patriots run as many multiple-tight end sets as they did in 2011. The numbers were down to about 50 percent last year when Gronkowski and Hernandez missed significant time with injuries.

3. Tim Tebow’s role.

On a scale of 1-10 in terms of importance to the team’s success, No. 3 quarterback Tim Tebow is closer to the “1” than the “10.” Yet there is intrigue.

Tebow hasn’t been consistent as a drop-back passer in practices and appears to be at his best on the move or as a runner. That explains why he has been the only quarterback in the drill in which ball carriers run with the football in a confined space after making a catch, and then the defenders execute proper tackling technique.

Do the Patriots see enough value in him, possibly as a scout-team quarterback, to reserve a coveted spot on the 53-man roster? That’s a hot-button topic that has generated passionate response from both circles.

“He’s a good guy first, a super-nice guy and a good guy to talk to,” Mankins said of Tebow. “He works his butt off, so we’ll see if he can find a role.”

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Since Brady is the quarterback, Belichick is the coach, and the team is playing in the AFC East, what’s not to like? And we’ve made it to this point with nary a mention of the team’s defense, which should be improved when factoring in that 10 of 11 starters return and the addition of a few complementary pieces, such as veteran safety Adrian Wilson, who brings size (6-3, 230) and an intimidating presence.

Last year, the Patriots traded up in the first round for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower, and they could be difference-makers. Jones was hobbled by an ankle injury for most of the second half of last year and said one of his primary goals this offseason was to improve his upper-body strength. Hightower played 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2012 but looks primed to possibly become more of a three-down option this year.

Furthermore, cornerback Aqib Talib had a significant impact -- both on the field and in the meeting room -- after he was acquired in November. Having him for a full year, in theory, should help the defense improve.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

There has been too much turbulence this offseason, including starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard’s arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Dennard is due in court in Lincoln, Neb., on Aug. 27 to determine if he violated his probation and could potentially face an NFL suspension.

Uncertainty with Dennard, the unknown in the passing game, Gronkowski’s health questions, and layers of the roster that appear thin on depth (interior DL) mean that the margin for error the Patriots traditionally have doesn’t seem as big as before.
Finally, the departed Welker was known for his consistency and durability. The Patriots are hoping Amendola can fill the void -- and the early returns are positive -- but there are questions about whether he can play a full 16-game season based on his injury history.

OBSERVATION DECK

• The Patriots’ coaching staff returns intact from 2012, marking only the second time in Belichick’s 14-year tenure that has happened. Former Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who joined the Patriots in January, has the title of “offensive assistant.” At times in practice, he’s worked closely with Tebow.

Devin McCourty, the 2010 first-round draft choice who made the Pro Bowl as a cornerback in his first season, appears to be settling into the safety position nicely. McCourty first moved to safety in the middle of last season, and his command of the defense, along with strong communication and sideline-to-sideline skills, make him a solid fit at the new position.

• Teammates call Wilson “The Incredible Hulk” because of his chiseled physique. Wilson and fellow veteran Steve Gregory are the top candidates vying for a starting role next to McCourty at safety.

[+] EnlargeTommy Kelly
Mike Reiss/ESPNDT Tommy Kelly should add some punch to the middle of the Patriots' defense, forming a strong 1-2 duo with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork.
• Former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Tommy Kelly (6-6, 310) projects as a starter next to Vince Wilfork; defensive end Rob Ninkovich called Kelly an under-the-radar player who is making a mark. Mankins said: “He’s been impressive so far, very athletic for his size. He’s quick for an inside guy. I like his work ethic. He’s been giving great effort, and if he gives us that kind of effort all season, I think he’ll have a good season.”

• Running back Stevan Ridley lost two fumbles in the team’s third practice, with Belichick sending him to run two punishment laps. Ridley led all Patriots running backs in playing 45 percent of the snaps last season, and the projection is that he should match that number this year. But if he struggles to hold on to the ball, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount and second-year man Brandon Bolden are the top candidates to step in to that bigger back role. Blount was 2-for-2 in a goal-line running drill on Sunday. Shane Vereen looks primed to fill the void created by Danny Woodhead’s defection to the Chargers to serve as the team’s “passing back.” On Sunday, he was featured as a pass-catcher when the team worked on the screen game.

• The entire offensive line returns intact, although there could be a competition at right guard, where third-year player Marcus Cannon (6-5, 335) has been working with the top unit while incumbent Dan Connolly (shoulder) works his way back.

• Top draft choice Jamie Collins, the linebacker/defensive end from Southern Mississippi (52nd overall), has received his initial work at linebacker. He’s the first linebacker to rotate into 11-on-11 drills, often replacing middle linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been more of a two-down player.

• Former Canadian Football League defensive lineman Armond Armstead opened training camp on the non-football illness list. Belichick said the illness is different from the heart condition that led him to leave Southern Cal in 2011 and land in the CFL, and there is no indication when/if Armstead might join the team at practice. In addition, receiver Julian Edelman and Gronkowski opened camp on the physically unable to perform list.

Leon Washington, who signed with the Patriots after three seasons with the Seahawks, has served as the primary kickoff returner, where the Patriots are banking on improved results after ranking 25th in the NFL last season (21.2-yard average).

• Ballard, who said he played at 278 pounds in New York, is down to 260. The hope is that it doesn’t affect him at the line of scrimmage as a blocker, but makes him faster and takes pressure off his knee.

• Incumbent punter Zoltan Mesko, who is entering the final year of his contract, is joined on the roster by rookie Ryan Allen, the two-time Ray Guy Award winner from Louisiana Tech. Both are lefty punters; Belichick has employed a left-footed punter in each of his 14 seasons as coach.
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.

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
AP Photo/Michael DwyerJake Ballard doesn't have Aaron Hernandez's athleticism but should still help out in New England, Matt Williamson said.
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.
The signs were ominous when Aaron Hernandez showed up to the New England Patriots' team facility last week. Usually welcome at any time, the star tight end was treated like an outsider and told to quickly exit the premises.

Just footsteps away from the stadium where thousands cheered him for the past three seasons, Hernandez's presence suddenly was no longer wanted. It was a prelude to Wednesday’s events, when New England released Hernandez, who is being investigated in the homicide of a 27-year-old man near his home in North Attleborough, Mass. Hernandez was eventually charged with murder and also faces five gun charges.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsThe Patriots don't have anything near the talent of Aaron Hernandez waiting in the wings.
This move should not come as a shock to those who know the Patriots. They are a football factory, very machine-like in their approach. As a result, they’re never afraid to cut bait when they determine a player’s negatives outweigh the positives.

New England waited more than a week to collect the facts and determined that Hernandez had forced the team's hand, even before the judicial process could determine guilt or innocence. At the very least, Hernandez is looking at a legal battle that could take months to resolve. That could mean a season-long distraction for a team that despises distractions. The worst-case scenario is that Hernandez's NFL career could be over if he gets significant jail time. The Patriots’ title window is closing, and they don't have time to wait on a verdict.

This is a big blow to New England from a football perspective. The Patriots simply are not the same team without Hernandez, who was one of their most talented and versatile players.

Hernandez could play all over the field with equal effectiveness. He could make catches over the middle, as well as line up outside at receiver. Hernandez even played tailback when asked. His talent was immense, which is why New England tried to keep Hernandez long term with a $40 million contract last summer.

Jake Ballard now steps into Hernandez's spot as the No. 2 tight end behind Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski. Ballard is experienced but doesn’t have nearly the same skill, versatility or athleticism as Hernandez. The drop-off in talent is significant, and the Patriots' passing attack will be easier to defend this season.

Backup tight ends Mike Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells are limited. Perhaps the Patriots also can explore popular third-string quarterback Tim Tebow in a limited role at tight end. Tebow played a little H-back last season with the New York Jets, although the experiment was a disaster. Chances appear slim that Tebow can immediately be an effective tight end.

The Patriots thought Hernandez and Gronkowski would lead them into the future. That is why the team paid the duo a combined $93 million last summer in extensions. Wednesday’s release confirmed that the Patriots' long-term investment in Hernandez was a mistake.

Without Hernandez, look for New England’s top-rated offense from 2012 to take a step backward this season.
The New England Patriots have a lot of issues this offseason at tight end. Pro Bowler Rob Gronkowski recently had back and arm surgery and is questionable for Week 1, and teammate Aaron Hernandez is being investigated in a homicide probe.

The tight end position is very important to quarterback Tom Brady and New England's offense. So what are the Patriots’ contingency plans if Gronkowski and/or Hernandez miss the start of the season?

Let’s examine.

Option No. 1: Lean on Jake Ballard

Analysis: Ballard was a solid tight end for the New York Giants during their Super Bowl run in 2011. The Patriots picked up Ballard off waivers last year, despite a serious knee injury that kept him out all last season. Now, that pickup is looking smart with Gronkowski and Hernandez both having issues heading into this season. Ballard is a solid option with starting experience. He should be able to fill in for Gronkowski or Hernandez in the short term. But what happens if both starters aren't available for Week 1? That is when New England would have to explore further options listed below.

Option No. 2: Try to develop Tim Tebow

Analysis: The Patriots have been mum on their plans for Tebow. New England signed the popular quarterback to a two-year contract earlier this month and created plenty of national headlines. Initial reports indicated Tebow will only play quarterback. But he will have a better chance of making New England’s 53-man roster. If Gronkowski's health is still an issue later this summer and things continue to go downhill for Hernandez with his legal woes, don't be surprised if New England experiments with Tebow at tight end. Tebow played a little H-back for the New York Jets last season. He has some athleticism, size and physicality for the position. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick loves versatile players, and Tebow could learn multiple positions in training camp.

Option No. 3: Sign a free agent

Analysis: There isn’t much available in free agency this time of year, but New England does have a few options at tight end if the team feels the need to add another player. The best free-agent option at this stage is probably Dallas Clark. New England showed some interest in the former Pro Bowler last year when Clark became available, because his skills fit offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' scheme. But Clark is aging, has injury concerns and would be just a band aid to a bigger problem.

AFC East Offseason Stock Watch

June, 20, 2013
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With training camp about five weeks away, let’s take a look at whose stock is up and whose stock is down in the AFC East.

Falling

1. Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots tight end: For the past three seasons, it's been injury issues that bothered Hernandez. Now, New England’s star tight end has two off-the-field issues that came up this week. Hernandez recently had his home and rental vehicle searched by Massachusetts police during a homicide investigation. Hernandez is reportedly not a suspect in the case. But Hernandez was cited in a lawsuit Wednesday that claims he allegedly shot Alexander S. Bradley in the arm in February after an argument in Miami. The bullet allegedly traveled from Bradley’s arm to his head and injured his eye, according to the lawsuit. Both legal issues combined is not good for Hernandez with training camp right around the corner.

2. Buffalo Bills, Jairus Byrd talks: Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com reported this week that there hasn’t been much movement in talks between the Bills and Byrd, a Pro Bowl safety. Both deserve some of the blame. The Bills have plenty of cap room remaining and can afford to pay arguably their best defensive playmaker. On the other hand, Byrd probably could have gone about things better and not skipped all of mandatory minicamp and organized team activities. The longer this situation goes, the more contentious it will become. Byrd has yet to even sign his franchise tag.

[+] EnlargeJake Ballard
Mike Reiss/ESPNJake Ballard could stand to benefit from the questions surrounding New England's top tight ends.
3. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: Although you have to appreciate Christie's honesty, it’s also easy to question his fandom. Christie, the leader of the state of New Jersey, admitted this week that his favorite NFL team is not the New York Jets or New York Giants -- it’s the Dallas Cowboys. “I was a big fan of Roger Staubach, who was the quarterback for the Cowboys back then,” Christie said during a public appearance this week. “The Giants and the Jets pretty much stunk when I was a kid and my father was a Giants fan.” Ouch!

Rising

1. Jake Ballard, Patriots tight end: Considering the various issues with New England tight ends, it’s looking more like Ballard could get extensive playing time, particularly early in the season. Ballard played well for the Giants’ Super Bowl team in 2011, but sat out all of last year with a knee injury. Patriots coach Bill Belichick claimed Ballard off waivers a year ago when he was still injured. Now that move is looking very wise. Ballard has starting experience and should be able to step in if Patriots starter Rob Gronkowski can’t make it back from back surgery or Hernandez still needs to sort through his legal issues.

2. Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins defensive end: Vernon capped off a solid offseason with Miami during mandatory minicamp. After moving 2012 starting defensive end Jared Odrick inside to defensive tackle, Vernon is now the early favorite to start at defensive end heading into training camp. The 2012 third-round pick received an additional boost up the depth chart due to 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan's absence. Jordan could not participate with the Dolphins this offseason due to the quarter system at the University of Oregon. He also is recovering from shoulder surgery in February. Therefore, Vernon got a lot of valuable reps with the first-team defense and showed many of the flashes he displayed his rookie year. It’s no secret that Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick last April, will eventually supplant Vernon in the starting lineup. But Vernon did all he could to hold his spot and may be in the starting lineup for Miami in Week 1.

3. Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback: Sanchez doesn’t get a lot of good publicity in the AFC East blog. It’s expected when you lead the NFL in turnovers the past two years. However, Sanchez does deserve a pat on the back for holding off Jets rookie Geno Smith thus far in offseason workouts. Sanchez came out the early winner in New York’s quarterback competition after OTAs and minicamp. There is still training camp remaining. But Sanchez is now the early favorite to be under center when the Jets host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the regular-season opener. Sanchez is definitely not the best long-term option for the Jets. But Sanchez may get the call this season until Smith is ready. Jets coaches say Smith still has things to learn about adjusting to the NFL game.

Injury-plagued Rob Gronkowski is back in the news again. The New England Patriots’ Pro Bowl tight end is scheduled to have back surgery Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com. This provides Gronkowski and New England with a firm timeline to begin the recovery phase.

If the Patriots are smart, the game plan for Gronkowski’s rehab is simple: Keep him away from all live action until Week 1 of the regular season.

Gronkowski needs rest more than he needs training camp. He’s been a human pin cushion this offseason. Next week will mark his fifth surgery since November. Gronkowski will simultaneously rehab his back and his surgically repaired arm this summer. Putting Gronkowski’s beat-up body through the grind of training camp is pointless. Playing him in the preseason also is an unnecessary injury risk. A player as talented as Gronkowski doesn’t need either to have a successful season.

Keeping Gronkowski sidelined this summer also provides more reps for fellow Patriots tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Jake Ballard. Those two will get a chance to grow and work together for the first time. Ballard, in particular, missed the entire 2012 season with a knee injury and could use the extra playing time and attention. Considering Hernandez's and Gronkowski's lengthy injury histories, there’s a good chance Ballard will be asked to fill in this season.

As Reiss mentioned in his analysis, there will be 83 days between Gronkowski’s surgery and New England’s Week 1 AFC East showdown with the Buffalo Bills. The Patriots should be all about getting Gronkowski ready for Sept. 8 from this point forward. Anything before that date is unimportant.

AFC East Offseason Stock Watch

June, 6, 2013
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Organized team activities and minicamps are in full swing around the NFL.

Here is a look at whose stock is rising and falling in the AFC East:

Falling

1. New England Patriots injuries: The Patriots are banged up, and it’s only June. Key players such as tight ends Rob Gronkowski (arm, back) and Aaron Hernandez (shoulder) have already missed a majority of offseason work, while other players like starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard (arm, shoulder) and wide receiver T.J. Moe (Achilles) suffered injuries in organized team activities. Moe is out for the season, and we’re still waiting on the prognosis of Dennard. Tight end Jake Ballard (ankle) and starting tailback Stevan Ridley (hamstring) also suffered minor injuries in OTAs this week. The Patriots have found a way to overcome injuries in the past. But they certainly don’t want those type of issues this early in the year.

2. New York Jets’ QB competition: There have been little fireworks this spring in New York's quarterback competition. The battle between veteran incumbent Mark Sanchez and rookie second-round pick Geno Smith has been lukewarm, at best. Both quarterbacks are learning a new West Coast scheme under first-year Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. The Jets would like one of these quarterbacks to begin to separate from the other, but that hasn’t been the case. Sanchez or Smith must perform better and more consistent in minicamp and training camp.

3. Brandon Spikes, Patriots linebacker: OTAs are considered voluntary. But, fair or unfair, players are still looked down upon by the team when they decide not to show up. Spikes is taking a risk by choosing to work out on his own in Florida this offseason. He’s bypassing OTAs and valuable team-building so he can do his own regimen. This probably doesn't sit well with the Patriots, who are a no-nonsense team. The pressure is now on Spikes to prove that his decision to stay away from the team paid off. He must show up next week in tremendous shape, and as an improved linebacker during mandatory minicamp next week.

Rising

1. Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins cornerback: Grimes has been one of the most impressive players in Miami's OTAs the past few weeks. Making it more impressive is the fact that Grimes is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury. Grimes says he's 100 percent, and it's looking that way so far. He’s moved well and made plays in practice. You can already see flashes of the cornerback that made the Pro Bowl two years ago. Miami is counting on Grimes to stay healthy and become the No. 1 cornerback that he was with the Atlanta Falcons. It will be up to the Dolphins to monitor Grimes and not overwork the cornerback this summer in training camp.

2. Jake Ballard, Patriots tight end: Opportunity is knocking for Ballard. With Gronkowski and Hernandez both on the shelf, Ballard is getting some first-team reps this spring in New England’s offense. Gronkowski, in particular, will miss much of training camp, and could miss Week 1 if there are any setbacks. So Ballard must stay ready. As we mentioned, Ballard injured his ankle in practice Tuesday. He also has a history of getting injured. But after missing all of 2012 with a knee injury, Ballard should get an opportunity to produce for New England this season considering the lengthy injury history of his fellow tight ends.

3. Michael Egnew, Dolphins tight end: I don't want to overrate spring practices. But based on what I'm seeing now versus a year ago, Egnew looks like a different player. The second-year tight end is getting open and making plays. He came to the Dolphins with credentials. He was a prolific tight end at Missouri, has good size and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds at the NFL combine. But Egnew didn’t show anything last season, and was inactive for 14 games. Perhaps the light is starting to come on for the young tight end in Year 2.
It hasn't taken long for tight end Jake Ballard to shed his Big Blue colors of the New York Giants and join the New England Patriots. The teams have faced off in two recent Super Bowls and developed a healthy rivalry. Now Ballard has been on both sides.

Ballard's last game with New York was against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI in February 2012. He suffered a significant knee injury in that game. In a sign of respect, New England head coach Bill Belichick claimed Ballard off waivers despite knowing Ballard would not play the next season. The Giants weren’t happy about it, but New England had no issues stashing Ballard on their roster for a year instead while he rehabbed.

Ballard is ready to play again in 2013 and met with the Boston media for the first time Thursday. Ballard says there is no question where his allegiance stands.

"I'm absolutely a Patriot through and through," Ballard said, according to ESPNBoston.com. "I enjoy being here, I enjoy being around the coaches, and everybody is great."

New England's waiver claim may come in handy one year later. Ballard missed all of last year but currently is the healthiest pass-catching tight end on the roster. According to NFL.com's Albert Breer, tight end Rob Gronkowski will have back surgery in June and will miss at least part of training camp. Meanwhile, Aaron Hernandez is out until at least until training camp while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Ballard would be the starting tight end for the Patriots if the season started today.

Gronkowski and Hernandez were in and out of the lineup all last season because of injuries. Ballard provides a good third option for the next time one of those two goes down.

If history is any indication, Ballard must stay ready. Gronkowski and Hernandez both have lengthy injury histories and numerous surgeries. Therefore, there's a strong chance Ballard's number will be called this season.

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