FOXBOROUGH — Jake Ballard has been on the Patriots’ roster for nearly a year, but since he spent all of last season rehabbing a torn ACL, Wednesday was the first day he was allowed to chat with reporters.
Claimed off waivers from the Giants last June, the focus on the 6-foot-6-inch, 275-pound tight end has intensified with the uncertainty surrounding Rob Gronkowski’s health status. After undergoing a fourth arm surgery last week, the All-Pro now needs back surgery.
Ballard isn’t quite the player Gronkowski is, but he had a solid season for New York in 2011, with 38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns. He started in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots, but suffered the left knee injury in the second half of the game.
New England’s OTAs are Ballard’s first on-field reps in 16 months.
Even without pads and with some limitations, he’s happy to be back.
“They’re not having me go full-go the whole practice. It’s not like they’re turning me to the wolves,” Ballard said. “I talked with the trainer and the coaches and they all tell me what I’m limited to do and what they think I’m going to be able to do. We just gradually improve from there every week and day to day.”
Ballard acknowledged it was a shock to end up in New England — the Giants used the waived/injured designation for the Ohio State product, with every intention of re-signing him and placing him on injured reserve — but he said he’s now a Patriot “through and through” and found the positive in arriving in New England under those circumstances.
“My first year [with the Giants] I was on the practice squad, and I had the chance to study that offense for a year then came out the next year and played. That’s kind of the same thing here,” Ballard said.
“I watched all last year here, just looking over the playbook and mainly doing rehab.
“But I got a sense of what the offense is about. Now these OTAs and meeting sessions have helped a lot.”
He believes that while he isn’t as fast, he plays a similar role to Gronkowski, and added that Gronkowski was helpful offering pointers and advice last year.
Thumbs up for OTAs
Count Logan Mankins among those who enjoy the no-contact, no-pads OTA sessions.
“We all live to play football in May,” the veteran guard joked on Wednesday.
“Nah, it’s good for us. It knocks the rust off before training camp. We get to get the new guys a head start before training camp, so they’re not showing up not knowing what’s going on. It’s always good to be out here, running and conditioning.”
Entering his ninth season, Mankins is the offensive line’s elder statesman. He is glad the starting five from last season are intact, after the Patriots re-signed Sebastian Vollmer.
“[It’s a] big advantage,” Mankins said. “As long as we’re all out there practicing together, that’s an advantage. We’ve got some guys out right now and that’s giving some younger guys some quality reps that they need . . .
“I think it’s a big deal for us. We enjoy the guys that we have. I think they’re all hard-working guys that play hard, play the way we want to play. As long as we’re all practicing together, I think we do a lot better together.”
Though Dante Scarnecchia has been leading his unit per usual, Brian Daboll also has been working with the offensive linemen. Daboll was brought back to New England earlier this year with the non-specific title of offensive assistant.
There was another familiar face working with the O-line: Joe Andruzzi. Andruzzi appeared to be working as a member of the strength and conditioning staff, working with linemen from both sides of the ball.
Six not spotted
There were six players not spotted: Gronkowski (arm/back), Julian Edelman (foot), Brandon Bolden (ankle), Nick McDonald (unknown), and Will Svitek (unknown). Brandon Spikes remains a no-show . . . After focusing on kickoff returns during last week’s media-available session, Leon Washington, Danny Amendola, Lavelle Hawkins, and rookie T.J. Moe all got work as punt returners . . . Rookie receiver Aaron Dobson made a couple of nice sideline grabs, one of them coming over Ras-I Dowling. Amendola went over Alfonzo Dennard to pull in a pass during 11-on-11 work . . . On the opposite end of the receiving spectrum, Lavelle Hawkins had a bad drop, failing to hold on to a ball that was right in his hands . . . Michael Hoomanawanui couldn’t pull in a pass from Tom Brady, tipping it up in the air, and Aqib Talib came down with it.