After a few seasons that may have been as awkward as they were physically painful, it appears as though former Patriots tight end Jake Ballard has found a home.
In an article on AZCentral.com, Ballard tells Scott Bordow that he's been able to settle in with the Cardinals after producing for them at the end of last season.
He's healthy, he's comfortable in their system, and he's extending an NFL career that looked like it may be on the brink when he plodded his way through Patriots training camp and was released last summer.
"I don't think anybody has been through the trials and tribulations like I have, the highest of highs and the lowest of lows," Ballard said. "It's been mentally challenging and physically challenging. But it's definitely been worth it."
Ballard caught seven passes for 75 yards in Arizona last season and looks to have a pretty secure job there as a contributing tight end. The Patriots hoped he might be able to have a similar role with them after they picked him up up off of waivers before the 2012 season.
The move to add Ballard ruffled feathers with the Giants -- Ballard's previous club -- since Ballard was going to miss the entirety of the season thanks to ACL and microfracture surgery needed following a devastating injury he suffered against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
The "unwritten rule" at the time was to let those sorts of players lie so they can remain with their teams while a roster spot is cleared. Patriots coach Bill Belichick went into detail about how there are no "unwritten" rules in the player-acquisition game and that Ballard was up for grabs once he hit waivers.
It set up a bit of a weird scenario. Ballard had wanted to be in New York. He thought he'd remain there. Then all of a sudden he was a member of the team he desperately wanted to beat -- and did -- in the Super Bowl the year before.
He did his best to assimilate quickly but remembers it being a less-than-seamless transition on his first day in New England.
"It was the last day of minicamp, and they were getting their AFC Championship rings," Ballard said. "So I have another buddy, (former Ohio State linebacker) Bobby Carpenter, and he and I leave the team room because we weren't with them the year before. So they're all walking into the room, and Bobby is like, 'Hey Ballard, why don't you show Brady the real ring?' I'm like, 'Bobby, it's my first day here. I'm not trying to make enemies.' And Tom kind of half smiles, looks at me and says, 'Too soon, Bob.' "
Ballard was a quiet reminder in the Patriots locker room throughout 2012 that they may have Rob Gronkowski Light for the 2013 season.
It turned out that they needed tight end depth then as much as ever. With Gronkowski injured and Aaron Hernandez incarcerated, New England's depth chart at the position didn't have anything after rookie Zach Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui.
Ballard seemed to show promise early in training camp lasts summer, but it was clear after a couple of weeks that he was still getting his legs underneath him. He was slow and methodical in his routes, and he didn't have near the explosiveness that made him a reliable weapon for Eli Manning and the Giants during their Super Bowl run a couple of years prior.
He was released at the end of camp and picked up by the Cardinals in November. As he's participating in OTAs there, he feels strong enough to be able to carve out a season-long role for himself for the first time in a long time.
"I know the system, I know what the coaches expect out of me. I'm not going in blind," Ballard said. "It's awesome."