When the Patriots open the 2013 regular season against the Bills, they'll do so without their top five receivers from a year ago. Of the five, only tight end Rob Gronkowski will return to the field for New England, though it's not clear when that will be (Gronk had back surgery in June).
In the meantime, Jake Ballard, whom the Pats claimed off waivers from the Giants last offseason, is expected to pick up the slack. Except that he's been recovering from a torn ACL he suffered during Super Bowl XLVI. Thought to be nearing full health, Ballard missed Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage with lingering knee issues, though according to the Boston Herald, the decision was precautionary. Ballard returned to practice Monday.
The former undrafted tight end out of Ohio State had 38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns in 2011 with the Giants -- all career bests. For some perspective, those numbers would have ranked sixth among Patriots' pass-catchers from last season (behind Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Gronk, Aaron Hernandez and Danny Woodhead).
Whether Ballard will ever get a chance to catch a pass from Brady during a regular-season game is another matter. ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Monday (via Rotoworld) that Ballard has "struggled so much there's now even a question whether he'll make the roster."
That decision is still days -- and maybe weeks -- off. For now, the depth chart at tight end includes Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui, Daniel Fells and Zach Sudfeld, the undrafted free agent who has had a good start to camp.
“It has been a process to get here. I feel just so fortunate to have this opportunity,” Sudfeld said after catching several passes during Saturday's scrimmage. “This team knows how to win. The coaching staff and everyone, they really want to give me the opportunity. Like I said, I feel very fortunate.”
As for Sudfeld's long-term goals, they're pretty simple:
“I'm just trying to make it," he said. "I still feel like I have so much work to do to get to where I need to be in order to contribute on this team. So I'm just trying to get in here every day, just be better than I was the day before and do what I need to do."
And the lack of established receivers currently on the roster? The believers are of the opinion that as long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are on the payroll, New England remain the favorites to win the AFC East. How far they'll go after that is the bigger question.