Brandon Lawrence

Ballard Vital To Patriots In Gronk's Absence

Created on May. 31, 2013 1:42 AM EST

Things are going from bad to worse for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

After a fourth surgery on his left forearm, which he first broke on Nov. 18, 2012 against the Colts, the soon-to-be fourth-year tight end found he needed surgery on his back. His agent Drew Rosenhaus referred to this as minor.

Gronk’s fourth surgery on his arm took place May 21. Rosenhaus said this surgery on his back would be like “killing two birds with one stone,” since he’ll be laid up for the next 10 weeks anyway in recovery mode. Rosenhaus also confirmed this back issue is not related to a previous surgery he had while in college in Arizona in 2009.

It’s unlikely that Gronkowski will be back for training camp in July if he experiences any setbacks from the operations.

It’s not unreasonable to say that Gronkowski has put up numbers that, if they stayed consistent, would easily land him in the Hall of Fame at the end of his career. But for now it’s looking too much like injuries are going to take over this stage of his career, which hopefully won’t affect him mentally when he is back out on the field.

For now, that leaves the Patriots in a predicament. While Aaron Hernandez is certainly a premiere tight end in the league, his skill set is very different from Gronk’s, and different from the typical NFL tight end.

One thing Gronk brought to the edge of the offensive line in 2012 was his solid blocking ability for the run game. Hernandez’s frame is much too small to be an edge blocker, and he generally lines up elsewhere in the Patriots’ scheme.

But the Patriots may be better off than we think. Jake Ballard, the former Giants tight end acquired after the 2011-12 season. Ballard tore his ACL before the start of the 2012 season and didn’t play a down for the Pats.

Entering this offseason’s OTAs, Ballard was on the track to complete health. The 6-foot-6, 275-pound tight end told reporters this week that he is staying within the parameters of what the team’s medical staff has designated for him, and that he’s on track to be 100 percent healthy again.

This is great news for the Patriots who could use a big body on the line that could also double up as a viable receiving threat. Ballard, a former Ohio State player, served a year on the Giants’ practice squad before his first (and only) playing season. In 2011, he caught 38 passes on 60 targets for 604 yards and four touchdowns.

For the Patriots, it’s more about not losing everything Gronkowski brings to the game plan. Yes, Gronk is an unbelievable red-zone threat and has speed very few linebackers can handle. And while Ballard isn’t fast, he’s still a large target for Tom Brady who won’t draw nearly as much defensive attention as Gronkowski did on the field.

So if Gronk isn’t able to go come week 1, at least Ballard can slide into the role fittingly.

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