FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Many questioned the Patriots' decision to claim injured tight end Jake Ballard off waivers from the Giants in 2012.
With the then-24-year-old sidelined for the final year of his contract after suffering a torn ACL in the 2011 Super Bowl and later undergoing microfracture surgery, the odds of his taking the field in a Patriots uniform appeared slim.
However, with Rob Gron-kowski out after offseason back surgery and Aaron Hernandez no longer a member of the Patriots because of a murder investigation, there's no question the door is open for Ballard.
"[Ballard] was a starting tight end in the National Football League," coach Bill Belichick said Saturday when asked about the decision to claim the 6-6 tight end before the 2012 season. "I don't think it was a big gamble. He was a good player at a young age; we played against him . . . and he was available."
In order to retain Ballard's initial negotiating rights, the Patriots had to add him to their 90-man roster at the time and pay his base salary of $540,000.
"I feel like I have a good opportunity just to be on this team and we have some things going on," Ballard said Saturday, the second full day of training camp. "But I'm not worried about that, I'm just worried about myself and what I can do to get better every day."
Ballard told reporters that he's down to 260 pounds after playing in 2011 at 278. During his rookie season with the Giants, Ballard caught 38 passes for 604 yards and four touchdowns.
Through the first two days of camp, Ballard has received the majority of snaps with the Patriots' first-team offense. However, he has appeared uncomfortable at times. On Saturday, he couldn't handle a pass from Tom Brady that Devon McCourty intercepted.
"I don't know if I'll ever feel like I was," Ballard said, "but I definitely feel a lot better than I have, especially better than the OTAs. I feel like I'm running smoother, picking up a little bit more speed. The knee feels just a little weird and that's just because half of it is numb from the surgery anyway -- all the nerves have been cut. I'm never going to feel like I was.''
Challenging Ballard for playing time will be veteran Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and rookie Zach Sudfeld.