Fantasy Football: Making a Case for Jake Ballard

      June 20, 2013 @ 16:56:00 PDT

The New England Patriots looked smart when they inked both Rob Gronkowski (eight years, $55.23 million) and Aaron Hernandez (seven years, $41.115 million) last year. After all, the dynamic tight end duo have given Tom Brady serious weapons in an offense that continues to be one of the best in the league.

Since 2010, both Gronk and Hernandez have combined to score 56 touchdowns in the regular season. With the departure of Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd in free agency, the Pats' two tight ends are the focal point of the passing game.

That's all in question as we get closer to training camp in July. It's been a tumultuous offseason for New England, to say the least. Those two hefty contracts aren't looking so wise now.

New England Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski
Gronk's injuries overshadowed

When Gronkowski is healthy, he's hands down one of, if not the most, dangerous pass-catching and scoring tight end in the NFL. The problem is he was injury-prone coming out of college, and he's already had five surgeries this offseason - four on his forearm and one for a troublesome disc in his back.

Gronk is expected to open training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list, and there's a chance he could stay there and miss at least the first six weeks of the season.

That was New England's biggest offseason headache until… Hernandez has become a suspect of a murder investigation when a man's body was found less than a mile from Hernandez's home outside of Boston. As more details come out, it's looking more and more likely that he's tied directly to the murder in some fashion.

The Patriots must be pretty panicked at this point. There's a chance they could be without both of their star tight ends when Week 1 kicks off. If you're drafting for the upcoming season, it'd probably be wise to stay away from both Gronk and Hernandez.

Of course, as the offseason progresses, things can change. Stay tuned on the developments for Gronk and Hernandez.

Until then, Jake Ballard is looking increasingly intriguing for fantasy football purposes. The Pats looked silly when they claimed Ballard off waivers from the New York Giants in June of last year, knowing he'd be out all year rehabbing a torn ACL.

The importance of position depth can never be understated, though. The Pats are learning that first hand right now at a position that was the strongest on their roster.

Ballard doesn't have the kind of talent that either Gronk or Hernandez possess, but with the uncertainty surrounding them, Ballard may have to step in for Bill Belichick as their No. 1 TE.

During the G-Men's 2011 Super Bowl season, Ballard caught 38 balls for 604 yards and four touchdowns. If Gronk and Hernandez are out of commission for some chunk of the season, the Patriots would likely utilize him more than the Giants did in '11.

Ballard's value will directly depend on the statuses of the two men in front of him on the depth chart as the summer progresses. But with the way New England likes to use plenty of two-tight end sets, Ballard has a good chance of making some sort of impact.

I'm staying away from both Gronkowski and Hernandez if I'm drafting right now, and I view Ballard as a potential deep sleeper candidate that I wouldn't mind selecting with a speculative late-round flier pick. You never know.

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About Keith Hernandez

Keith, an editor with KFFL, joined the team as a Hot off the Wire analyst in 2008 and has been playing fantasy sports since 2005. He is involved in MLB, NFL and NASCAR content. He graduated from the University of California-San Diego in 2005 with a B.A. in Communications and was a four-year starter as a member of the baseball program.

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