FOXBOROUGH – The Patriots have plenty of tight ends, but that didn't stop them from adding another one.
The team claimed injured Giants tight end Jake Ballard with an eye on 2013. Ballard suffered a knee injury during Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots and later had ACL and microfracture surgery.
A very optimistic timetable would put the recovery at nine months. That would be November. Ballard, 24, is more likely headed to injured reserve after being on the physically unable to perform list.
If that happens, Ballard would be an exclusive rights free agent (the Patriots assume his one-year, $540,000 contract this season) again in 2013. The team would only have to tender a minimum contract and Ballard would return to the Patriots. He would be a restricted free agent in '14. Since Ballard was undrafted, the Patriots would only need to tender a minimum contract to retain right of first refusal if another team came calling. Ballard wouldn't become an unrestricted free agent until '15.
If Ballard does play this season, everything would move up a year. Basically, in claiming Ballard, the Patriots have a good, young prospect to give them options.
By all accounts, the Giants believed Ballard would clear waivers and they would be able re-sign him and place him on either the physically unable to perform list or injured reserve; he was even on the field for the team's late-afternoon practice Tuesday when news came he'd been claimed by the Patriots.
Obviously, with Rob Gronkowski (2019), Aaron Hernandez (2013), and Daniel Fells (2014) under contract for at least the next two seasons, the Patriots are in good shape at the position.
Ballard, at 6 feet 6 inches, 265 pounds and possessing 4.82 speed, would be a big-body "Y'' tight end in the Patriots' system, like Gronkowski. Blocking is first, catching is second.
Ballard definitely showed his hands with two huge catches against the Patriots, including the winning touchdown down the stretch in the Giants' 24-20 victory at Gillette Stadium last year in the regular season.
Ballard had 38 catches for 604 yards and four touchdowns last season, his first that counts toward the four years needed for unrestricted free agency. Still, Ballard is known for being a banger.
Ballard, in a statement issued through his agent, said he would miss his Giants teammates and was "humbled'' to be claimed by the Patriots.
The Patriots drafted Lee Smith in the fifth round of the 2011 draft to fill the "Y''role, but he was later released and claimed by the Bills.
The Patriots also use an "F'' tight end, which is a smaller, mobile player such as Hernandez. Fells, who is just shy of 6-4 and has 4.8 speed, is a tweener for both positions.
Claiming a waived/injured player goes against the NFL's unwritten rules but it has become more commonplace.
The Patriots did the same thing when the Broncos tried to slip safety Josh Barrett through to injured reserve. New England was miffed when the Vikings claimed tight Garrett Mills in 2007, but Mills wasn't heading to injured reserve.
No hard feelings
Despite his own contract issues, Wes Welker has no problem with Gronkowski getting an extension.
"I thought it was a great deal; you need a guy like that around here for a long time,'' Welker said after Tuesday's minicamp practice. "He's such a great player for us, and having him around here for a while is a great deal for us and our organization so I'm very happy for him.''
Does seeing another player get paid while he waits for his long-term deal bother Welker?
"Not at all; I'm always pulling for the players, especially a guy like Gronk who does such a great job for us and works so hard and deserves every bit of that contract,'' he said.
But when it came to questions about his own situation, Welker didn't say much.
"I'm not worried about that at all,'' he said in regarding a deal getting done. "Right now I'm here and I'm happy, and I'm just here to try and help our team win here in 2012.''
By league rule, if Welker and the Patriots come to terms on a deal that goes past 2012, it has to be done by July 16. Otherwise, he plays this fall under the franchise tag.
"I don't really expect anything except for me to go out there and do my job to the best of my ability''
Once minicamp wraps up Thursday, Welker will turn his attention toward his wedding to Anna Burns on June 25.
The receiver is at least the third Patriots player who'll get married in the coming weeks - Rob Ninkovich and Marcus Cannon also have their weddings planned this month.
Minicamp is mandatory under the contract, however, coach Bill Belichick said Brian Waters was excused for personal reasons.
While the Globe has reported that Waters is expected to play in 2012, Belichick was asked if the guard has talked to the team about his plans and said he didn't have anything to add on the situation.
Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, players who skip minicamp can be fined up to $60,000 by their club; however, given that Belichick allowed that Waters is being excused, it seems unlikely the Patriots are planning to penalize him.
Waters's family remained in his native Texas last year while he was in New England for his first season with the Patriots.
On the mend
Six players were spotted doing rehab drills during practice: Gronkowski (ankle), Sebastian Vollmer (back), Logan Mankins (knee), Brandon Spikes (knee), Matthew Slater (leg) and Tracy White (hernia) . . . Defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene did not complete practice, and had his left leg tended to on the sideline. He walked off the field on his own, but had a limp . . . Clearly Belichick isn't losing any sleep about releasing Chad Ochocinco. Asked why Ochocinco's stay with the Patriots didn't work out, he said, "Well, I don't know. The bottom line is that's in the past; we're focused on today and trying to go out there and think about when we step on the field. I haven't thought of that too much.'' Ouch . . . The Patriots announced that tight end Brad Herman, injured last week during organized team activities, was placed on injured reserve.